Are Buddhists Violent?

by Lawrence Osborne, Forbes, April 14, 2009

Western stereotypes vs. reality as Thailand descends into turmoil

Bangkok, Thailand -- 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.

The subtle and scholarly religion of Leonard Cohen is pursued as a psychological odyssey, not as a mode of statecraft. The onus of power is absent. A Buddhist politician in Cambodia or Thailand, on the other hand, is sometimes forced to deviate from the nobler precepts of his religion--and one cannot be surprised that they do so.

We know Buddhism's famous doctrines second hand: karma (actions whose intentions bear fruits according to their nature); the insubstantiality of the self; rebirth; freedom from suffering caused by passionate attachments; and Enlightenment, or bodhi. These originally austere and dark concepts have passed into our pop culture in one way or another, suitably lightened and sweetened up, and we all recognize them without really understanding what they mean.

Pursuing as we do happiness, that improbable Moby Dick of an idea, we think Buddhism can make us happier by controlling our egos and our anger. Maybe it can. But did Buddhism ever think of the world as "happy" as we'd like it to be? Does it think of us as individuals, as we'd like ourselves to be? Does it comprehend political identity as we understand it, or as even Thais understand it now?

Nonviolence is indeed what Buddhism teaches. But what of those societies that are Buddhist by heritage but endure political struggles like everyone else? There, the clash between Buddhist belief and, say, class warfare becomes curiously agonizing. Take Thailand.

Thailand is a Theravada constitutional monarchy, where the king is a semi-divine figure. It is 95% Buddhist and exceptionally devout--perhaps the most devoutly Buddhist country in the world after Tibet. But Thailand is also partially Hindu and animist in its beliefs and mythologies, as well as being highly capitalist and secular in its practices. Its capital, Bangkok, is a furious engine of 21st-century globalism.

And perhaps that's the rub. Buddhism here lies within a vortex of forces that it cannot balance. It is a Buddhist state in which the rural poor--represented by the ousted media billionaire and former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, and calling themselves the "Reds"--are pitted against the urban, globalized Bangkok elites, who are themselves a bewilderingly heterogeneous mix: the army, the professional and business classes, liberal journalists and academics and the monarchy itself. These are the "Yellows," and yellow is the color of the Buddhist monarchy. (One should not forget that Thaksin, though widely reviled as the Berlusconi of Asia, was removed by a peculiarly Thai military coup in 2006 that involved no actual shooting. A Buddhist style of coup?)

Last November, I was caught at Suvarnaphumi airport as an army of "Yellows" swarmed through the terminals screaming "Martyrdom!" and brought the place to a standstill. Masked, carrying sticks and piping, the merry Yellows were not a very Buddhist-looking lot, at least according to our sentimental conventions,

Now, it's the turn of the "Reds," who have stormed Bangkok and caused the Asian summit in Pattaya to be aborted. They are also devout Buddhists, but they are not in an especially nonviolent mood. A protester has finally been shot dead. Thaksin has cryptically commented that the death toll is far higher, though nobody seems to know. That it will rise, and that the violence will come to the streets, seems tragically likely.

I like to think that the popular idea of Buddhists as people who have learned the power of restraint is not entirely unfounded. Some media outlets were breathlessly reporting that the Thai army had "sprayed" the crowds with live bullets. But the army itself then patiently explained that the bullets were in fact dummies with paper heads, which made a loud noise but penetrated no flesh. Sounds quite Buddhist to me.

The ones fired over the protestors' heads, on the other hand, were real. And so we may assume that the gap between live ammunition and dummies is rapidly closing. There will come a point, I fear, when those paper heads become steel and the ideal of nonviolence that has hitherto kept Thai protests relatively bloodless will break down under the weight of societal divisions. Even if today we saw women kneeling in front of the soldiers and hugging them, begging them not to pull their triggers.

The historian Philip Short, in his biography of Pol Pot (who was a Buddhist monk in his youth) made a passionate argument that Buddhism was partially responsible for the genocide of the Khmer Rouges in the 1970s. It encouraged, he claimed, a fatal passivity and indifference to political processes, a detachment from worldly concerns for sufferings that were ultimately political in nature.

One could, I suppose, make much the same argument for the Burma (Myanmar) of today, as Christopher Hitchens did. And it is true that Buddhists have led attacks on Christian churches in Sri Lanka, just as the vile Burmese regime has used Buddhism as its de facto state religion.

But in some of these instances there is a counter-argument. Burma and Cambodia were and are ruled by essentially Communist regimes drenched in a very western idea of class conflicts and the usefulness of state violence in obliterating them--obliterating, alas, large parts of the population in the process. Pol Pot was a monk, but later on he also went to the Sorbonne. Robespierre was his hero, not the Buddha. His genocide was not "Buddhist."

Thailand, in any case, has no such excuse. It is a Buddhist state, pure and simple, and it is supposed to incarnate the virtues of that religion. If it cannot heal its rifts, then the religion itself is going to have an image problem. One could argue that that image has been changing for some time because of the religious war in the country's south.

The Islamic insurgency in Thailand's southern provinces, which are predominantly Muslim, presents us with a grim and in some ways ironic spectacle: Virulent Islamic insurgents inordinately fond of decapitating monks facing down a Buddhist army that has itself committed atrocities.

This war has dragged on semi-secretly for years, with many thousand deaths, cities living under curfew and fear regnant. What effect, I wonder, has it had upon the rest of the society? And we can hardly forget the dozens of coups that the country has suffered over the last hundred years, which have not been extraordinarily bloody by world standards but which have not been peaceful either. Is this Buddhist politics too?

In the end, however, I tend to be one of those who give Thai Buddhism a good deal of credit, rightly or wrongly. I myself have always found Thais to be highly aware of the consequences of confrontation and therefore seemingly unwilling to be violent, even verbally. It's just an impression, but it's shared by many others.

The country has a high homicide rate for crimes of passion but is paradoxically one of the safest in the world for street crime. Its national sport, muay thai, or "Thai boxing," is exquisitely brutal, and I might add very much to my taste, but where else are manners more considerate and intelligently designed to abate violent personal conflict? Where are strangers treated better, and where is tolerance of a certain kind more pragmatically enjoined? It can hardly be far-fetched to think of these as in some way Buddhist virtues. Outside of politics, the Thai vibe is summed up by a single common word: Sanuk, the principle of enjoying life.

What, then, to make of this new spiral downward into chaos and confrontation? Of course, to expect ordinary people who happen to be Buddhists to be moral supermen is absurd. All peoples are violent, and they are torn by the injustices inherent in human life.

During my long night walks across Bangkok, I used to sometimes go to the pig slaughterhouses secretively located in the hidden port slums of Klong Tuey. They are called the roong muu, and it is said that because Buddhists abhor the act of killing animals themselves, the shameful abattoir work is done by Vietnamese Catholic immigrants. That's why the slaughterhouses are so far from downtown Bangkok.

"They love eating the pork," one of these guys explained to me once, fingering his blood-stained hammer. "But they hate killing the pigs."

Lawrence Osborne is the author, most recently, of Bangkok Days,to be published in May.

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