[Buddha-l] Review of a review

Richard Hayes rhayes at unm.edu
Sat Jun 26 12:29:29 MDT 2010

At the time I was gaining credits in Ottawa toward my BA in religious studies, most of my Canadian teachers were intellectually indebted to Wilfred Cantwell Smith, a Torontonian who crossed the great cultural divide into Montreal, where he had a huge impact on the culture of religious studies at McGill. His impact was still being felt at McGill long after he had left Montreal for the McGill of the South (as we liked to call Harvard). One of the oft-quoted pericopes in the Smith canon was that there is no virtue in comparing the doctrines of one religion with the actual practices of another. That is, there is not much point in saying that Judaism teaches "Thou shalt not kill," but Christianity produced the Spanish Inquisition (and therefore, one is invited to conclude, Judaism is more compassionate than Christianity). In doing comparative religion, one should compare practice with practice, scripture with scripture and hermeneutic with hermeneutic. The reason for this, I was told repeatedly by many a disciple of Smith, is because the followers of religions almost never live up to the nobler ideals of the teachings of their religious traditions.

Perhaps because Wilfred Cantwell Smith's cautions made so much sense to me, I have never been daunted by the dramatical failures of Buddhists to act as the Buddha recommended that people act if they wish to eliminate some of the pain of life. After all, most Buddhists are people, and most people are vitiated by greed, hatred and delusion and therefore can't be expected to behave as stream-entrants, arhants and tenth-bhūmi bodhisattvas—especially if they are employed as kings, generals, merchants and monks, professions that necessitate constant moral compromises and concessions to the realities of a universe deeply mired in unwholesomeness.

When I was first attracted to Buddhism, I was living in the United States and had just received my invitation to appear for induction into the United States Army. The Vietnam war was in full swing, and the more I read about that conflict, the more I realized I was more in sympathy with the Việt cộng than with the "good guys". I toyed with the idea of getting military training at Uncle Sam's expense and then deserting and using my skills to fight for the Việt cộng; that was years before I saw Apocalypse Now. As things turned out, however, as I waited for the appointed date of my military service to begin, I killed time by taking a course in Buddhism being offered at the Unitarian church my parents attended at the time. The readings I did there made me aware that I really did not need to take sides in the Vietnam war, or in any other war. There were ways to see that the "good guys" were acting badly that did not require seeing the Việt cộng as the good guys. In most situations involving human beings, there aren't any good guys to be found. History is a protracted scufle among scoundrels. If I had not read the Dhammapada, Sutta Nipata and Dīghanikāya when I did, I probably would not have bought a one-way Greyhound bus ticket to Winnipeg to start life as an immigrant to Canada. Taking that course in Buddhism at that time was either a stroke of blind good luck or the ripening of some mighty good karma. I leave it to the ideologues to sort that one out. I myself don't much care why things happened as they did; I'm just glad a moment of clarity arose in my mind when it did.

During the first few years I was living in Canada, I read a lot more Buddhist texts. Since I had been helped by a community of kind-hearted Quakers who took me under their wing, I also read quite a bit of the Bible, which was pretty much completely unknown to me. (After all, my parents, you'll recall, were Unitarians.) As I read the Bible, I was utterly appalled. Rarely have I read anything that more thoroughly disgusted me. Everything from Genesis to Revelation seemed like one blood-curdling war whoop. God was being asked at every turn to crush enemies, humiliate enemies, make enemies eat dust, cover enemies with suppurating wounds and make enemies die of hideously painful diseases. I began to think it was a miracle that Quakers, steeped in that savage book as they were, managed to find their way to their famous peace testimony. Under the influence of Quaker men and women, I became a pacifist. Not being able to find anything biblical to inspire such a stance, I built my pacifism on a foundation of the teachings I read in Buddhist texts. Whereas it is difficult to find a page of the Bible that does not refer in some way to all the horrors the enemies of the friends of God will face, it is equally difficult to find a page of the Pali canon that does not in some way recommend finding ways to eradicate one's fear-based hatred of others and bias for oneself and one's own kith and kin. Comparing Buddhist scripture to the scriptures of the three Abrahamic religions, without reference to how any of the followers of those religions actually behaved in the allegedly "real" world, it became clear to me that the teachings of Buddhism strongly spoke to my condition, while the teachings of the Abrahamic religions identified, and even recommended, the all-too-human conditions that make the world all but uninhabitable.

Given the amount of inspiration that Buddhist teachings have always given me, I have never found myself being amazed, disappointed or perplexed by the conduct of actual Buddhists down through the ages of human history. After all, they behaved just about exactly as one one expect people driven by greed, hatred and delusion to behave. They were narrow-minded and contemptuous of people who chose to wear other labels. Like all people, they were limited in vision and prone to letting their self-interests save them from the trouble of being forgiving and compassionate. That's how people are. The Buddhists burned each other's libraries down, recommended that rivals be sentenced to death, fought insane and unjustified wars through their loyalty to lustful kings, trained young men to fly suicide missions and then turned those poor indoctrinated suicides into heroes. None of that has ever convinced me that non-violence is indefensible or that it is not part of what the Buddha taught. Knowing the reality of how Buddhists acted never dampened my inspiration, because I never expected to be inspired by actual Buddhists. I didn't need to be inspired by them, because I had already found teachings in books that inspired me more than any actual human being can do.

All this may help explain why I just can't get interested in the work of Gregory Schopen or Brian Victoria or the materials in books such as Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer's edited collection of articles entitled Buddhist Warfare, recently reviewed by Vladimir Tikhonov. The review itself is bland (as a good book review should be, in my opinion). It describes a book in a way that a reader of the review can decide whether she wants to pay the $90 to own a copy or spend the time to read a copy borrowed from the library. There is, however, one claim made by the reviewer that strikes me as just plain silly.

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.

Outside the pietistic claims made in essays written by dewy-eyed first-year students who can barely spell and have not yet learned to think, I have never encountered anyone who answers to that unflattering description. I know plenty of Buddhists who like the teachings of Buddhism and are inspired by the invitations to live as harmlessly as possible, but I have never encountered any Buddhist—let alone any scholar of Buddhism—who tends to "see no evil" in the history of Buddhists. I suspect the reviewer may have succumbed to exactly the sort of stereotyping he attributes to the myth-driven Buddhists he imagines. What could be said, accurately I think, is that most of the teachings of Buddhism recommend looking for non-violent solutions to problems, that the teachings of Buddhism have largely pacifist leanings, and that there are Westerners who converted to Buddhism because of those leanings. To say that those converts then systematically failed to recognize that Buddhists often fail to follow Buddhism is probably to say a little more than is warranted by evidence.

I appreciate Vladimir Tikhonov's review. It enables me to see that this is one book I probably will not bother to read. But then I am a philosopher, not a historian. 


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