Monks with Guns

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image by Corey Wise / Alamy ©

The publication late last yearof Buddhist Warfare, the book I coedited with sociologist and religious studies scholar Mark Juergensmeyer, was a bittersweet experience. It marked the culmination of a journey that began with an exploration of the peaceful aspects of Buddhism–only to end up chronicling portions of its dark side.

The journey began in 2003 when my wife and I spent a year in Thailand. I was there to research Buddhist social activism, which was going to be the topic of my dissertation. Rather than look to archives, I decided to speak with Buddhist monks and nuns.

I interviewed monks protecting the forests from big business and villagers from dangerous pesticides. I spoke with Thai Buddhist monastic intellectuals. I met and began to chronicle the activities of the first fully ordained Thai Buddhist nun. Then, in January 2004, violent attacks broke out in the southern provinces of Thailand, some of them directed at Buddhist monks.

Since contemporary issues and my research seemed to be converging, I thought: What better way to study Buddhist activism than to observe Buddhist monks engaged in peace­making? Unfortunately, I found very little of this. During my visits between 2006 and 2008, southern Thai monks shared with me the challenges of living in fear-infested communities. All but a few concentrated on survival.

Peacemaking was the last thing on their minds.

The constant fear and violence took a toll on them. Monks talked about the guns they now kept at their bedsides. Others spoke heatedly about the violent militant attacks on Buddhist civilians and monasteries. Although the cause of the violence was and is multilayered–owing much to corruption, drug trade, and corporatization–many monks also felt Islam was to blame. In their minds, the conflict was anchored to a larger discussion of religious violence: Muslims against Buddhists.

One day after teaching an English class for Buddhist novices at a monastery, a young monk came over to me. He pulled back the folds of his robe and revealed a Smith & Wesson. I later learned that he was a military monk–one of many covert fully ordained soldiers placed in monasteries throughout Thailand. To these monks, peacemaking requires militancy.

I began to look critically at my earlier perspective on Buddhism–one that shielded an extensive dimension of Buddhist traditions: violence. Armed Buddhist monks in Thailand are not an exception to the rule; they are contemporary examples of a long historical precedent. For centuries monks have been armed in the ranks of wars. Why did I (and many others) hold the belief that Buddhism = peace, and that adherents of other religions were more prone to violence?

I realized that I was a consumer of a very successful form of propaganda. Since the early 1900s, Buddhist monastic intellectuals such as Walpola Rahula, D.T. Suzuki, and Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, have labored to raise Western awareness of their cultures and traditions. In doing so, they have presented aspects of Buddhist traditions while leaving out others. Western academics quickly followed suit. By the 1960s, pop culture in the United States no longer depicted Buddhist traditions as primitive, but as mystical.

Thupten Tsering, codirector of the 1998 film Windhorse, a political drama surreptitiously filmed in Tibet, encapsulated the effect of this unsophisticated portrayal in a 2000 interview with the New York Times. “People assume that if you are Tibetan, you are peaceful and polite and smiley,” he said. “I tell people, when you cut me, I bleed just like you.”

So it was in an effort to humanize Buddhists that Mark Juergensmeyer and I put together Buddhist Warfare, a collection of critical essays that illustrate the violent history of Buddhism across Mongolia, Tibet, Japan, China, Korea, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India. Our intention is not to argue that Buddhists are angry, or are violent people–but rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same spectrum of human emotions.

The book has touched some nerves. Some have objected to the cover, which depicts a young Buddhist monk holding a handgun. That is, however, the very reason this collection of essays is so important: to address the apparent and widespread inability to acknowledge the violent elements of religious traditions.

In a way, I wish I could return to that dream of Buddhist traditions as purely peaceful and benevolent. But I cannot. It is ultimately a selfish dream that robs Buddhism’s adherents of their humanity.

Excerpted from Religion Dispatches (Jan. 12, 2010), a daily online magazine dedicated to the analysis and understanding of religious forces in the world

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