[Buddha-l] book of review of Buddhist Warfare

Dan Lusthaus vasubandhu at earthlink.net
Sat Jun 26 05:21:12 MDT 2010

As promised, here is the freshly published book review of Buddhist Warfare, 
just distributed to the H-Buddhism list via H-Net. A pdf version of this 
review, nicely formatted, can be found, downloaded and printed from the 
H-Net archive at

Comments welcome.

Michael K. Jerryson, Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. Buddhist Warfare. Oxford: 
Oxford University Press, 2010. xi + 257 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 
978-0-19-539483-2; $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-539484-9.

Reviewed by Vladimir Tikhonov (University of Oslo)
Published on H-Buddhism (June, 2010)
Commissioned by Dan Lusthaus

The Myth of ”Nonviolent Buddhism” – Demolished Once Again

Given the frequency with which stories of religious violence appear in the 
news--be it terrorist atrocities perpetrated by fundamentalist groups, or 
religiously tinged communal strife--the thesis that religion has an 
intrinsic potential for violence that time and again erupts in bloodshed 
seems to be self-evident. However, compared to all other global religions, 
Buddhism tends to be the one least associated with warfare, even while the 
Sri Lankan state, constitutionally bound to “foster and protect Buddhism,” 
was conducting a brutally efficient elimination campaign against Tamil 
insurgency, with the enthusiastic support of its Buddhist community. In 
fact, “Buddhist warfare” was not unknown to Western observers prior to 
this--the first works on Japan’s militant monks were published already in 
the late nineteenth century. The myth of “nonviolent Buddhism” persisted, 
however, owing much to the pacifist leanings of Western Buddhist converts 
who tended to “see no evil” in their adopted religion, as well as to the 
widespread tendency to apply “positive Orientalist” stereotypes to Tibet, 
often seen as a peaceful Shangri-La of sorts in the apologetic writings of 
Western supporters of its charismatic Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

The new collection edited by Michael Jerryson (Eckerd College, Florida) and 
Mark Juergensmeyer (University of California, Santa Barbara) will hopefully 
contribute significantly to demolishing the “nonviolent Buddhism” myth, at 
least at the level of academic discussion. It persuasively argues that even 
though in theory Buddhism highlights the inescapably insalubrious karmic 
consequences of any violence, in practice it functions pretty much like any 
other religion: From its inception, Buddhism was integrated into a 
complicated web of power relations; it always attempted to accommodate 
itself with the pre-existent power hierarchies while preserving a degree of 
internal autonomy; and it inevitably came to acknowledge, willingly or 
otherwise, that the powers-that-be use violence to achieve their objectives, 
which often overlap with those of the Buddhist monastic community. In many 
cases, the passive acknowledgement of the inexorableness of state violence 
further developed into active collaboration with state war-making or 
internal pacification--as long as state bloodletting was seen as also 
serving Buddhist religious interests.

The collection opens with an introduction by Michael Jerryson which provides 
a masterfully written outline of Buddhism’s ambiguous relations with state 
violence throughout the course of its history. The gist of its argument is 
that early Buddhism’s dichotomous view of society gave Buddhists little 
reason to take risks by actively promoting antiwar views certain to alienate 
state rulers. While the autonomous communities of full-time Buddhist 
practitioners (sangha) were supposed to eschew violence, the mundane world 
was seen as inherently chaotic and thus in need of “those who administer 
torture and maiming” (Vinaya)--that is, kings. Never tired of admonishing 
kings to rule in a benevolent way which would render royal violence 
unnecessary, Buddha tacitly accepted, however, the reality of dog-eat-dog 
interstate competition--the quid pro quo being what Jerryson justly defines 
as “monks’ immunity to state rules” (p. 11). These patterns of Buddhist 
collaboration with state powers were eventually cemented with the incipience 
of modern nationalism, as whole nations (Śrī Lanka, Thailand, etc.) were 
seen now as “Buddhist,” their warfare being inescapably legitimized in 
religious terms. The sangha-state dualism, in other words, developed, in the 
end, into its own negation.

Jerryson’s introduction is followed by another, much longer outline on the 
issue of Buddhism’s relation to warfare, Paul Demiéville’s (1894-1979) 
well-known 1957 text, Buddhism and War, translated into English by Michelle 
Kendall (University of California, Santa Barbara). Originally a postscript 
to a study on the Japanese “warrior monks” (sōhei), Demiéville’s incisive 
text highlights the issue of violence in the Japanese Mahāyāna tradition and 
especially emphasizes the theoretical platform which makes even active 
monastic participation in violence permissible. As Demiéville makes clear, 
Buddhism tends to reject the existence of any essential existence of things 
(svabhāva) as such, and Mahāyāna philosophy accordingly privileges “mind”/“consciousness,” 
 the questions of the “relative” existence of matter being hotly debated 
by a variety of theoretical traditions. Thus, in the matter of killing, it 
is the intention and not the act in itself that is focused upon. As some of 
the most influential Mahāyāna sūtras (Ratnakūta Sūtra, Yogācārabhūmi, etc.) 
suggest, “killing” is simply a meaningless misconception from an 
“enlightened” viewpoint (since neither the killer nor the killed have any 
independent existence) and may be undertaken if intended to prevent a worse 
misfortune, and done with the best objectives in mind. Demiéville, in 
effect, points to the dangers inherent in the Buddhist relativizing of the 
objective world in the situation when Buddhist monks themselves are strongly 
influenced by conflicting worldly interests. It is a pity, however, that the 
article’s translator left intact Demiéville’s use of the antiquated system 
devised by Séraphin Couvreur (1835-1919) for transcribing Chinese (which 
used to be in vogue primarily in France), instead of re-transcribing Chinese 
words into Pinyin (which is used by the other contributors to this 

The next article, Stephen Jenkins’s (Humboldt State University) research on 
the Mahāyānist Ārya-Bodhisattva-gocara-upāyaviṣaya-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśa Sūtra 
(the title is translated by Jenkins as The Noble Teachings through 
Manifestations on the Subject of Skilful Means in the Bodhisattva’s Field 
of Activity), contextualizes the teachings of the sūtra in question and 
further buttresses Demiéville’s argument that the Buddhist emphasis on 
“good intention” opened the door for a broad spectrum of  violence 
legitimization, including both war and in criminal justice. The sūtra 
Jenkins analyzes justifies both torture if done with the intention to 
prevent criminality, and war as ultima ratio regum if conducted with the 
intention to protect noncombatants. Unfortunately, however, Jenkins does not 
elaborate in more detail what sort of influence the Chinese and Tibetan 
translations of this sūtra exerted on Buddhism’s political views and 
activities in Central and East Asia.

Buddhist justifications for warfare in supposedly “pacifist” Tibet are 
dealt with in the following article by Derek Maher (East Carolina 
University). Focusing on the writings of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82) in 
which the Gelug-pa (Yellow Hat sect) leader glorifies his mundane patron, 
Gushri Khan (1582-1655)--the Khoshut Mongol ruler who effectively 
established the domination of Gelug-pa’s Dalai Lamas over Tibet through a 
series of wars against competing sects and potentates--Maher shows how the 
supposedly “Dharma [Buddhist law]-protecting” violence was rationalized as 
not sinning against explicit Buddhist disciplinarian norms. Without ever 
clearly arguing in favor of violence as such, the Dalai Lama subtly leads 
his readers to think that once violence is perpetrated by a venerable 
religious warrior with a clear intention to protect Dharma, then it is 
justifiable. As the next article, by Oxford University’s Vesna Wallace, 
argues, a very similar logic was also applied to the cruelest forms of 
criminal justice utilized by secular rulers in Mongolian society after the 
conversion to Gelug-pa Buddhism in late sixteenth century. Executions by 
spine-breaking and slicing into pieces, and tortures by clubbing or crushing 
hands and feet were all justified as long as they were conducted by 
“Dharma-protecting” authorities with the “compassionate” intention of 
purifying society. Violence ended up being justified as long as it was seen 
as the best way of realizing rulers’ good intentions in what was perceived 
as an inherently violent world.

While identifying belligerent Gushri Khan as the compassionate bodhisattva 
Vajrapāni was rarely problematic for supposedly “nonviolent” Tibetan 
Buddhism, it does prove problematic for many contemporary Western Buddhists, 
many of whom view their Buddhist faith as an extension of their pacifist 
convictions. Their voice is represented in the collection by Brian Daizen 
Victoria (Antioch University), whose article, critically dealing with the 
appropriation of Zen Buddhism by Japanese militarism forcefully argues that 
acquiescence to violence completely contradicts the spirit of Buddha’s 
Dharma. The argument is fully plausible, since the emphasis on the 
inauspicious karmic consequences of violent acts, thought, or speech is more 
than clear, especially in the early Buddhist literature. However, if 
Victoria is to criticize Japanese Buddhists’ wartime collaboration with 
their state, he--as Bernard Faure (Columbia University) persuasively 
suggests in his “Afterthoughts” probably would have to ultimately extend 
his criticism to the historical Buddha and his disciples, since it was 
exactly their attitude of tacitly acknowledging state violence and accepting 
sponsorship from ruling-class personages directly or indirectly implicated 
in all sorts of violence that laid the foundation for what Victoria 
describes as Buddhism’s “self-prostitution” in the service of the state 
(p. 128). Taking this historical background into consideration, the pattern 
of “mutually beneficial” relations between the Buddhist monastic community 
and the early Maoist state in China, as described in Xue Yu’s (Chinese 
University of Hong Kong) article on Chinese Buddhists during the 1950-53 
Korean War, does not look like a deviation, but rather like a continuation 
of a time-honored pattern strongly rooted in the habitus of the monkhood. 
The pattern shows regional variations, of course: While donating airplanes 
to and personally enlisting in the Chinese “volunteer” army “fighting 
crazy American criminals in Korea” (p. 146) was not seen as problematic for 
Chinese Mahāyānic monks, the Theravādin Sri Lankan monks, as Daniel Kent 
(University of Virginia) shows in his contribution, even eschew direct 
encouragement to kill in their sermons to soldiers (not to mention 
abstaining from any personal participation in killing), preferring to 
emphasize instead that the fighting men should kill and die “without 
unwholesome intentions,” so as not to suffer karmic consequences from their 
“Dharma-protecting war” against Tamil rebels. But, as Michael Jerryson 
makes clear in his piece on monks’ participation in the Thai state’s 
suppression of a Muslim insurgency in the south, it is a sort of “public 
secret” in Thai society that some monks become ordained while still on 
military duty and some monasteries house military garrisons in the 
insurgency-ridden areas. As long as the Thai state is considered a 
“Buddhist nation,” this sort of Buddhist response to the threats facing it 
makes perfectly logical sense, all the doctrinal skepticism towards violence 

All in all, Jerryson, Juergensmeyer and their co-authors have produced an 
extremely valuable, edifying collection which seriously challenges the 
images of “peacefulness” that Western Buddhists have tended to project 
onto the religion of their choice. A reader feels persuaded to conclude, as 
Faure suggests in his “Afterthoughts,” that a religion which does not 
question the (inherently violent) hierarchies of power in the mundane world; 
which promotes interiorized violence in the form of ascetic practices; and 
which systematically discriminates against women and habitually demonizes 
outsiders and rivals, should, in fact, be expected to be violent. What 
remains to be desired--from Jerryson, Juergensmeyer and their collaborators, 
as well as other specialists working in this field--is a broader and 
stronger contextualization of Buddhist violence as part and parcel of a more 
general tendency of practically all religions to be violent. Religions are 
symbolic systems that organize the universe in such a way as to make 
themselves central and powerful--and closing the distance between “power” 
and “violence” is only a question of time, however “compassionate” the 
axiology of a given religion might originally have been. The present 
collection shows us very clearly the dangers inherent in privileging one 
religion--even a most “compassionate”-looking one--in relation to others.

Citation: Vladimir Tikhonov. Review of Jerryson, Michael K.; Juergensmeyer, 
Mark, eds., Buddhist Warfare. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. June, 2010.
URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=29747 

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