copyright Robert M. Ellis 2008

'The Trouble with Buddhism' Chapter 8 (Dharma trouble) part d

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Oversold tolerance


Before I leave this chapter on Dharma, I’d like to also tackle another widespread piece of Buddhist exceptionalism: the idea that Buddhism is uniquely tolerant. As Sangharakshita claims:


Not a single page of Buddhist history has ever been lurid with the light of inquisitorial fires, or darkened with the smoke of heretic and heathen cities ablaze, or red with the blood of the guiltless victims of religious hatred. Like the Bodhisattva Manjushri, Buddhism wields only one sword, the Sword of Wisdom, and recognises only one enemy – Ignorance. That is the testimony of history, and is not to be gainsaid[1].  


Unfortunately the testimony of history is rarely so unequivocal, when viewed in a less partisan light. The Buddhist claim is usually that no war, or at least very few wars, have been fought motivated by religion in Buddhist lands. If one points out a few examples of Buddhist bellicosity, these are treated as exceptions to the general rule of Buddhist peacefulness. However, the evidence is that there has been no lack of wars in Buddhist lands, and whether or not a war is motivated by “religion” or “politics” is a question of highly subjective judgement.


Religious beliefs and practices can be closely associated with “political” wars, and politics is rarely absent from “religious” wars. Two examples of this are quite recent or current. One of these is the involvement of many Japanese Buddhists in their country’s nationalistic expansionism at the time of the Second World War: Brian Victoria, in his book Zen at War[2] gives lots of evidence of Zen culpability. The other example is the intolerant Singhalese Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka, which until recently has prevented a reasonable settlement to avoid thirty years of conflict with the Tamils.


Much evidence from further back in Buddhist history can also be found in Trevor Ling’s book, Buddhism, Imperialism and War. Ling argues that although the stress on non-violence in Buddhism has resulted in more avoidance of confrontation in Buddhist South-East Asian society, this simply results in a suppression of aggression, which can be released firstly through gossip or other indirect means of intolerant communication, and secondly through war[3]. War in South-East Asia has also historically been without some of the constraints found in other cultures, and the complete lack of any tradition of Just War theory in traditional Buddhism means that the religion has done nothing to moderate barbaric killing when it breaks out. Instead, Ling shows evidence for the ways in which the monastic sangha in South-East Asia has been easily manipulated by kings to uncritically support nationalist wars.


The Buddhist claim to unique tolerance often in fact rests, not on Buddhist purity, but on an unfavourable comparison with Christianity – as in the quotation from Sangharakshita above. It would be hard to beat the united impact of the Inquisition, the Crusades, and the forced Christianisation of the Americas, so there is little doubt that Christianity (as a whole) indeed has a worse record on extreme violent intolerance than Buddhism. However, this is hardly a great achievement for Buddhism – a bit like being nicer than Hitler.


Another element of the argument usually involves a straightforward fallacy. Those Buddhists who have engaged in nasty wars and been intolerant of other religions or races are usually described as not acting according to true Buddhist principles. This confuses two definitions of “Buddhist”: firstly those in the group who profess to be Buddhist, and secondly those who fulfil specific criteria for being a good Buddhist. If we only pick good Buddhists to count as “Buddhists” to start with, the result will be a foregone conclusion that Buddhists don’t fight wars or behave intolerantly (just as it would similarly with good Christians), but if we count as “Buddhist” all those who profess to be so,  it is far from the case that Buddhists have been exceptionally tolerant compared to other groups.


Finally, the exceptionalist Buddhist claim to tolerance may often involve a confusion of tolerance with passivity or patience. To be tolerant, one must have the power and the capacity to do something about what one doesn’t like, but nevertheless choose to allow it. Merely putting up with something that one has no power over is not tolerance, nor is it tolerance if one is indifferent to it, and really doesn’t care what others do. In areas where Buddhism has traditionally flourished at various times (such as India, South-East Asia, China and Japan), there is a cultural tendency to regard religion, not so much as an exclusive set of doctrines that one believes in, but as a set of available practices which one combines with others. In this kind of culture, people do not habitually do violence to each other on the basis of religious belief because they traditionally do not see religion as the kind of thing one fights about. There is little interest in religion as a single dominant commitment, and therefore little interest in getting other people to share that single commitment. People in these cultures have been predominantly either not interested in their neighbours having a single religious commitment like theirs, or have just been passive in relation to it, even if in some sense they would prefer everyone else to share the same allegiances.


The idea of tolerance was invented in Europe, and was the outcome of the Protestant Reformation and its attendant useless bloodshed. Those who began to practise tolerance then really did care about the other sides’ beliefs – they strongly disapproved of them. They also often had the power to persecute religious minorities, but chose to grant them freedom of worship. Oddly enough, without experience of extreme conflict and intolerance, real tolerance could not follow. It is thus a mistake to attribute tolerance exclusively to Buddhism, or even a greater achievement in tolerance to the operation of its supposedly superior doctrines through history. It could be argued that Christian tolerance, purchased much more dearly and in knowledge of the effects of its opposite, is in fact much more valuable.


Whether the Buddhist doctrine of the Middle Way has a greater potential for promoting peace and tolerance in future, especially when united to the Christian tradition of tolerance which has developed into Western democracy, is another matter. It seems clear that it has exceptional potential to support tolerance, because all conflicts involve attachment to metaphysical views, whether these views are about politics, religion, necessary resources, or just the nature of the opponent. The more real practice of the Middle Way there is (whether or not it is done by Buddhists), the less attachment to those views there will be and thus the less likelihood of conflict. A real examination as to how much truth may be in an opponent’s views, looking for the experience that lies behind them rather than just the metaphysics, also greatly increases awareness of an opponent and thus increases the likelihood of tolerance. However, the Middle Way is still largely untried. The Buddhist tradition has been so far adrift of it that it can hardly be said to have proved its efficacy in producing peace and tolerance one way or the other. Only future developments can potentially provide clear evidence in support of the practice of the Middle Way.

[1] Sangharakshita, Buddhism in the Modern World

[2] Brian Victoria, Zen at War, Weatherhill 1997