This is how the British-accented news anchor on France24 framed her question to me, late into the interview. After a slew of images of monks in Myanmar expressing anti-Muslim attitudes and slanderous misinformation, and Buddhist mobs attacking Muslim communities… after I’d explained something about what lies behind the rise of the monk-led Buddhist nationalist extremist 969 and MaBaTha movements in Myanmar, she asked me: “Isn’t Buddhism supposed to be Zen?” I tried not to look irritated nor amused, but…. I have a hard time controlling my face. I have no poker face. See above.
Of course, I knew what she meant, but the way she worded her question was revealing. Zen is a school of Buddhism in Japan (its Chinese equivalent is called Chan), not an adjective; it’s a particular school of Mahayana Buddhism (the Buddhism practiced in Myanmar is Theravada) characterized, among other things, by confusing riddles (koan) and provocative acts like the burning of scripture, even more so than tranquil gardens. It’s also a school of Buddhism that produced several champions of violence and Japanese imperialism during World War II, including D.T. Suzuki, a figure often celebrated in the West for having brought Zen Buddhist teachings Westward. Given Zen’s own contribution to the sacralization of militarism and violence, the news anchor’s question was even more absurd.
But I knew what she meant. It’s a question I’m asked a lot by Westerners, whose notion of Buddhism has been shaped by the current Dalai Lama’s pacificism and charm, or the post-Enlightenment embrace of Buddhism as a “modern” religion, seemingly more compatible with science, more rationalistic, less encumbered by cosmological myth and ornate ritual. This romantic and Orientalist image of Buddhism held by Westerners as a rational, peaceful, and compassionate religion has been cultivated by Buddhists themselves who are motivated to propagate the tradition, and because of course — who wouldn’t want their tradition to be seen in this way? But the reality, as those who’ve spent time studying Asian history or living in Buddhist-majority countries know, is that Buddhism, like all religions, is constituted by humans, and reflects human nature. I still remember the first time I saw monks being violent; it was in a Tibetan neighborhood of Kathmandu where I was living as a college student of Buddhism in 2000. From my roof while I was studying one day I saw a trio of monks in their early twenties beat up a drunk man behind a building, kicking and punching him vigorously. It took my breath away, this act of violence so counter to Buddhist ideals of lovingkindness I was reading in the scriptures sitting before me on that rooftop table; violence enacted in a flurry of maroon robes.
I shouldn’t have been surprised, of course. I grew up in a world in which Christianity, a tradition born out of the teachings of an absolutely pacifist and all-embracing preacher, had been twisted to support bigotry, slavery, crusades. So why wouldn’t other traditions be vulnerable to this, despite their own teachings privileging nonviolence? In graduate school I would go on to study the intersection of religion and violence in Sri Lanka precisely because it went against the popular assumptions in the West. There, Buddhist teachings and monks mobilized in support of the war, and the Muslim community, despite being ethnically cleansed by the Tamil Tigers and shot at by the government, never responded with violence, refraining with appeal to Islamic teachings idealizing nonviolence. With the Sri Lanka example, one was immediately forced into a more nuanced treatment of the relationship between religion and violence, beyond a mere reductionist nod to supposedly deterministic doctrines.
I love Buddhism. Studying Buddhism through the academy and in my practitioner work for the past sixteen years, and living in Buddhist-majority countries, has indelibly shaped my own Christian practices and beliefs in ways that have enriched them. I have been challenged by Buddhist meditation practices — perhaps the most difficult spiritual practice out there — and inspired by teachings in Pali suttas, Nagarjuna’s philosophical writings, Zen haiku. I have been blown away, felt God, while sitting under the towering Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon at sunset, or circumambulating the Boudhanath stupa in Kathmandu, shrouded in incense and ringing with bells. I laud the vision of just governance carved into stone edicts in the third century BCE by Emperor Ashoka, believed to be Buddhist. I work with monks and nuns who act selflessly and with fierce commitment to the cause of justice, for humanitarian relief, to reduce the suffering of others. Buddhism is undeniably beautiful. But I have also met monks and nuns who have spoken with derision about Muslims (one monk in Myanmar last year described them to me as “crows, who steal eggs from the nests of others”), who have yelled at me or bossed me around, despite the fact that I am a clergyperson myself. I’ve watched video testimonials of young monks who have been repeatedly sexually abused by their elders in the monasteries. I study how Buddhist ideas have been used to support wars of conquest over millennia.
In the end, Buddhism is beautiful and complex, peaceful and violent, tender and complicated, just like humans. At its best, it inspires the best of human impulse, ideals that can help to create a world in which all suffer less. At its worst, it legitimates violence or bigotry for the sake of a cause it deems sacred and just. But so do all religions, and so do various secular ideologies/systems, including nationalism, colonialism, democracy-building, socialism. Don’t romanticize Buddhism, but don’t lambast it either. Just see it for what it is. A human endeavor.