[Buddha-l] Dharmapala, redux

andy stroble at hawaii.edu
Tue Aug 3 04:11:24 MDT 2010

With apologies to all who may be growing tired of the topic, I have yet 
another question on the role of violence in Buddhism. 

Joanna gave us links to some very interesting materials, the article by Holt 
on protector deities in Sri Lanka  (Vishnu? Really?)
 and the book by DeCaroli, Robert. _Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular 
Religions and the Formation of Buddhism_. OUP, 2004 which fortunately my 
library has in electronic format (though I have only read a bit past the first 
chapter.)   My question here has again more than one part.  Sorry. 

First:  The appearance of protector spirits (to use the most convenient word) 
I do not find that surprising. Any religion that spreads has to take into 
account the local traditions, and recruiting the local divinities just makes 
sense. The Romans were rather good at this, trying to find equivalencies 
between their pantheon and that of conquered peoples, until they ran up 
against monotheists (but that is an entirely different discussion).  So all 
the protectors of Buddhism, from Vajrapani to Hachiman, can be seen in this 
light, but the question of whether their protection entailed actual violence 
is, as we have seen, up for grabs. 

DiCaroli looks at the idea that Buddhism provided protection from local 
spirits, some of whom were malevolent. I guess this also could be a selling 
point for a new religion.  But it does pose problems for the relation of 
Buddhism to indigenious cults. 
> By setting up a dialectic between the monastic community and the
> spirit-deities, this position runs the risk of viewing the samgha as
> clever manipulators playing the public for the sake of greater donations. I
> believe that such a view greatly oversimplifies the process and fails to
> recognize that the monks and nuns themselves were participants in the
> culture that surrounded them. (DeCaroli, p. 10)
This goes back to our earlier discussion of whether such entities were 
believed to be actual by Buddhists, or if they were just playing on the 
sensibilities of earlier religions. 

But it does bear, I think, on the larger question of violence in Buddhism.  
And this cuts two ways.  First, how is is that Buddhism provides protection 
against malevolent spirits (the "evil-eye" in some other cultures), and how do 
the converted spirits provide protection for the Dharma? 

Now my question is the first, but being a modern atheist, and an idealist 
though more of a materialist idealist than a spiritualist, I don't see how 
this works.  I fear I am not being clear, but it is not the first time. 

So to start again.  It is obvious what benefits the sangha can get from royal 
or governmental patronage. At least in terms of material benefits.   I would 
take the spirit protectors to be a metaphor for this, it is more about 
politics.   But what benefit does Buddhism offer to a secular regime?  What is 
the political correlary to a tamed malevolent spirit? 

What I am really after here is an ideal of the political that Buddhism offers 
to the secular ruler in exchange for the protection of the Dharma.  We have 
seen in the   Mahavamsa the appropriation of Buddhism, and possibly relics of 
the Buddha himself, in order to ensure military victory.  Much the same can be 
said of Nichiren in Japan, with the repulsion of the Mongol invasion (and 
earlier, with Shotoku).  But are these political claims, or magical?  I am not 
sure that there is much in the original teachings that provides a basis for 
the efficacy of the Dharma in defending a nation.  You can see where this is 

Of course, maybe I do not see where this is going. Yes, there is a tradition 
of protectors of the Dharma who certainly appear to be violent, and yes, there 
is a tradition of Buddhists sanctioning violence by their patrons, but I do 
not see how this works doctrinally.  More in line with the teachings of the 
Buddha are the suggestions of the socially engaged Buddhists, where a 
government that seeks to eliminate suffering is the goal.  But this is a 
recent development, and some might say by western Buddhists. 

A final confession, I have read Batchelor's _Confessions of a Buddhist 
Atheist_ after reading _Buddhist Warfare_, and the contrast has been 
interesting, especially as regards certain controversies in the Tibetan 
tradition.  But it reinforces my question here, how does Buddhism protect a 
nation?  Or, indeed, does it? 

Yeah, I need to rethink and rephrase all this.  But any comments are 

James Andy Stroble, PhD
Lecturer in Philosophy
Department of Arts & Humanities
Leeward Community College
University of Hawaii

Adjunct Faculty 
Diplomatic and Military Studies
Hawaii Pacific University 


"The amount of violence at the disposal of any given country may soon not be a 
reliable indication of the country's strength or a reliable guarantee against 
destruction by a substantially smaller and weaker power."  --Hannah Arendt

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