History of Violence in Buddhism

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.

via Monks With Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence | RDBook | ReligionDispatches.

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)

16 thoughts on “History of Violence in Buddhism”

  1. There is a difference between a religiously incited or grounded act of violence vs an act of violence by a person of a certain religious background.

    Wars and conflicts occurred throughout history, and Buddhism-predorminant countries are not an exception. This does not mean that it is motivated by or grounded in the religion.

    Compare that to Abrahamic faiths where scriptural sources can be explicitly used to justify and even sanction such violence. There is no comparable basis in the Buddhist teachings for such violence.

    Throughout history, wars are mostly fought by men. Does that mean that the male gender necessarily sanctify such violence or that these wars were fought in the name of man? So should we start calling these, the Man World War?

  2. I think that all religions have the potential to turn people into killers. But does this mean that the wisdom of those religions should be rejected completely?

    TK Collier makes a good point that no religion is immune from violence and despotism. But he reveals something about his mindset from the statement: “I hope this collection will effect some significant change in the way Buddhism is perceived in the United States. Only time will tell.”

    He obviously thinks that because there have been and to some degree, still are some Buddhists who advocate violence, then Buddhism is completely “bad” and everyone should see this. It seems he is implying that Buddhism is bad for society.

    I have to disagree with this. I believe that Buddhism has helped many thousands of people to realize just how precious life is, and to honor it. Its certainly helped me to become a better person. I am much less selfish, and I truly care about others in a way that I never knew was possible. I won’t even kill an ant now, at least not on purpose.

    If any philosophy, or religion can get people to care about others more and to see the sacredness of life, then that religion or philosophy has the potential to end all wars.

    Its sad that there are those who misinterpret their religion or philosophy in such a way that it makes them do harm to others, but this is a human phenomena, not necessarily an inevitable outcome of that religion.

    I think people have a tendency to need to be “right”. This desire to be right and to be the “holder of the truth” is the main driving force behind jihads and crusades and the like. But just because people have this tendency, and it can drive them to murder those who believe differently, it doesn’t mean that the religion is the cause of the violence.

    IMHO: Until we can learn to love other people as much as we love our own children, we will have violence, and war. I like to think we will evolve beyond this stage of self destruction, and someday will see all other humans as our brothers and sisters, not our enemies.

  3. In1973 in Thailand, Thai monk Kittivuddho Bhikkhu declared
    in a radio interview that “it is not a sin to kill a communist,” proclaiming that his Thai nationalism took precedence over his Buddhist practice. In this case, many of the “communists” murdered in cold blood were completely unarmed students.

  4. The “purity” promoted and espoused by followers in some religious traditions (such as Thai Theravada Buddhism) has deadly potential – potential not necessarily due to the religion itself, but rather, due to the “human-ness” of some followers. It seems all too often that some people can not help but translate the purification of one’s mind-body to that of an ethnic/political/national body. This is the real problem.

  5. “There is a difference between a religiously incited or grounded act of violence vs an act of violence by a person of a certain religious background.”

    I apologize, but this justification seems to make absolutely no sense to me.

  6. “Compare that to Abrahamic faiths where scriptural sources can be explicitly used to justify and even sanction such violence. There is no comparable basis in the Buddhist teachings for such violence.”

    There is the violence involved in purification of one’s self, which often, for some reason among men and women, translates over to violence committed by or against a state/political group or ethnic/racial group.

      1. And I’m not referring to all men and women, just some. However, there seems to be a good dose of nationalist sentiment held by many Thai Buddhists these days.


    all organisations are hyjacked in the name of human wars , including religions. Theres as much difference between chinese and soviet communism as there is in swedish and american capitalism . Tibetan buddhism is worlds apart from japanese zen buddhism .If the mormons had been around in the middle ages they would probably have crusaded. Religion in war is usually a secondary or tertiary thing, just a means to polarise different groups. There is nothing inherently warlike in religious dogma . When a religious group like the jesuits become a strong influence then they will be part of all aspects of society (including finance +war ). st augistine outlined his view of a JIHAD or holy war. Jesuits used to be ordnance experts on the battle field. But the philosophies of religion are rarely forwarded by conflict.

  8. In zen buddhism , the sword that kills becomes the sword that saves . ( may sound like a cop out ).
    For the samurai , zen became their philosophy in all manners. They were trained to maintain Absolute self control and restraint in times of trouble . the sword became an instrument only to be used in the most extreme circumstances . Early on a famous samurai went to a master for teaching and asked if heaven + hell existed , The zen master deliberately insulted him , He began to draw his sword . the master said “here opens the gates of hell” . so the samurai sheathed it . the master said “here open the gates to heaven ” .
    Buddhism doesnt profess belief in deities or a “GOD” . When a person believes in a God , it opens up a huge arena for belief in almost anything , and JUSTIFICATION for almost anything.
    Buddhism unlike judeo christian religions are progressive .
    “Great faith and great doubt” .
    “Faith” in the ability to achieve “liberation” , and “doubt” ; to question every aspect of the philosophy.
    theres 4 christian gospels . Theres 84,000 buddhist scriptures.
    Christianity was CREATED + moulded for political ends and highly controlled . The opposite is true for buddhism , hence the vast amount of writings which WERE NOT burnt along with their heretical authors

  9. Thank you so much for the authors of this book. Very valuable indeed. Great piece of history to keep and read. Very true!

  10. As a long time believer in Christ Jesus viewing the above responses, it would be very safe to say that those who commented on the Judeo/Christian texts of God may have little to know understanding of them. This is especially typical of westerners who reject Christianity for one reason or another.
    In the trappings of philosophies there is (the perception of) no threat of heaven or hell; therefore, what one does has no eternal permanent consequences. It’s all about the here and now, in reality. Humanism has NO eternally founded tenets which are beyond human control to change, and therefore cannot control human nature. It (philosophy/humanism) cannot guarantee in any way a better more peaceful society now or into the future. It is futile.
    It is not correct to say that “religions” (some are actually philosophies not religions) don’t promote violence if it explicitly states that it is one course of action. What is missed is the context under which that option is acted upon. The Koran promotes Jihad as a course of action, and the context is that if your not Muslim your an infidel; as an infidel you are always lower, or a second class subject to the Muslim. If you choose not to accept your position you are worthy of death.
    There are many indeed who do adopt or co-opt a religion to take advantage of its power over a group of believers. This can be seen throughout history particularly with Christianity.
    In FACT the Nazi propaganda machine wrote the Jews out of the bible, and erased Jesus’ Jewish heritage so that the German Christians would more easily buy into their murderous actions. Yet, many contemporary non-Christians continue to believe that Nazis were “Christians.” As a result, all of Christianity is–with the stroke of more contemporary social propaganda–tagged with what the Nazis did. One must know the history and context to get it right.
    Mormon’s would not have crusaded, because they are “Christian” in title only. Again, look at their history and you will find that its founders claimed that the bible was completely corrupted (like Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses alike). They (all three) then rewrote what they claim to be the “real” scripture.
    Remember: “if there is a God, that God does not need our belief in it to exist. That God exists without our permission. Yet, we DO require that God’s existence to exist ourselves.” One cannot simply rewrite God’s word without consequence.
    Philosophy has indeed stated that there must be an “unmoved mover.” “The unmoved mover (οὐ κινούμενον κινεῖ, ou kinoúmenon kineî) or prime mover is a philosophical concept described by Aristotle as a primary cause or “mover” of all the motion in the universe. As is implicit in the name, the “unmoved mover” moves other things, but is not itself moved by any prior action. In Book 12 (Greek “Λ”) of his Metaphysics, Aristotle describes the unmoved mover as being perfectly beautiful, indivisible, and contemplating only the perfect contemplation: itself contemplating. He equates this concept also with the Active Intellect. This Aristotelian concept had its roots in cosmological speculations of the earliest Greek “Pre-Socratic” philosophers and became highly influential and widely drawn upon in medieval philosophy and theology.” This is taught in entry level college philosophy classes. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmoved_mover)

    Science shows that the probability of the universe, earth, and life coming into existence of its own IS impossible. Oddly enough, many scientists won’t accept their own fields data. As is the case with human nature, we tend to dismiss what we do not want to believe, or we succumb to the enormous propaganda machines in our midst’s. I recommend reading Anthony Flew’s book: “There Is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind,” and viewing http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X1e4FUhfHiU
    My point, Buddhism is the philosophy of a man, history documents this. This philosophy became too many, a religion. This religion is corruptible even if it doesn’t explicitly allow what some call “violence.” All religions are used at some point as a tool to gain power and carry out atrocities. (Genuine self defense is another matter.) Many people claim “Christianity” is responsible for a large amount of violence. Yet, they fail to do study history of the events, and the context of “violence” in the bible. Whenever people of a religion carry out a “violent” act, they do so for a reason. It may be justified, or unjustified, but it needs to be understood to properly evaluate where the blame goes.
    Yet, how many people who believe in any of the many “religions” out there believe in it only after they thoroughly studied it? It may be that what one believes, and puts their faith in, is itself the problem, a distraction, a subtle propaganda making an appeal to the senses of one’s experiences. For example, many westerners turn to Atheism or Eastern religions because they are disgusted with Christianity. With all the mis-information, dis-information, charlatans, power hungry–wolves in sheep’s clothing, and co-opting propaganda that has drowned out what is “a relationship with Christ” it’s not hard to see why this happens. Does one “throw out the baby with the bath water,” should I look to something else to put my faith in? Should I heed the rumors about something? Or, should I investigate (using prime time media sources is rarely adequate for an objective investigation.) Some say that talking to a practitioner of faith is getting a biased view. Of course it is. Would you talk to a Wall Street financier about a prostate cancer treatment? No. You talk to the experts in the correct area of the medical field. However, it is not that easy in religion. How many versions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and other variations of other religions are there? A lot. If one is looking for eternal truth, investigation will not be easy, but it is crucial to life. I know, some are not looking for truth, and some dismiss outright anything that is “religious”; yet, they have FAITH in themselves (self worship), they idolize themselves.

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