Someone recently asked me about violence and Buddhism. This was after the recent violence by Buddhists in Burma against the Islamic minority.
Buddhism has historically managed to be less tainted by violence than some other faiths. Certainly it’s tough to be ‘righteously violent’ in the name of Buddhism. That’s not to say, though, that it’s never happened.
Why some Buddhists get violent
I don’t want to get into the ins and outs of who did what to whom and when. What I want to talk about is how such things may happen and what can be learned from this.
Firstly, we should remember that a Buddhist and a Buddha are two fundamentally different concepts.
They’re both human, but one is far more inclined to act based on primal human drives than the other. And even though a Buddha is human, they’re also an archetype.
The Buddha from the texts isn’t the one you’re ever going to meet. Real Buddhas are a bit different. Less glowing aura, shorter ears, no obvious bodhic protuberance, that kind of stuff.
The usual suspects
Wealth, power, sex, the usual suspects. Buddhists are by no means immune to the pull of such things.
People get shocked when Buddhists do bad things. On the one hand, that’s fair enough. Buddhists talk about peace, kindness, wisdom and suchlike.
On the other hand, we need to not be so gullible. I think this is part of the growing up that us Buddhists in the west need to do.
On some level, we all want to go back to the absolute safety of the womb. Buddhists, and especially Buddhist teachers, sometimes get landed with being a womb.
But Buddhists aren’t safe to be around. They’re human. You need to find your refuge in something beyond all that.
The Sangha that Buddhists ‘go for refuge’ to, isn’t to be found in the temple or the Buddhist centre. That’s not the sangha we’re talking about. Keep a healthy skepticism. Like when you’re trying to buy a second hand car.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember in the light of the rioting is that ‘Buddhism’ and ‘Buddhist’ are just words. You can call yourself a loaf of bread, it doesn’t mean you are one.
What matters is what you do, who you are, how you live. These are to some extent in your control. I don’t care if you call yourself a Buddhist or an artichoke. I’ll give you respect if you’re worthy of it.
The four great vows of the bodhisattva
All humans are capable of doing the most terrible things. All you need is a justification, and justifications are easy to come by for pretty much any atrocious act.
The average Nazi was not a blood-thirsty lunatic. They were the mainstream members of society. Upstanding citizens. And look what they allowed to happen.
Just because something is legal, or condoned by the people, or what everyone else is doing, it doesn’t mean it’s OK. It doesn’t even mean it’s not utterly barbaric.
We have to be on our guard.
We can tut at the acts of people on streets far away or baddies from history. It’s harder to see what’s happening closer to home.
For example, the way our current system works requires huge amounts of exploitation and violence in order to operate. We collude with this system every day. Buddhists like me collude with it.
We have some choice, and can make some change, but we’re also where we are and when we are.
People in the future will (I hope) look back on our treatment of animals with incredulity. Much the same way as we look back on the slave trade.
They’ll look back on the way we exploit millions in the developing world so we can have cheap shiny stuff and new clothes each season.
This violence built into our lives is something we can open our heart to, get clear about, and…
We’ll try to live as ethically as we can. We’ll try to minimise our harm. We’ll maybe go vegetarian, or buy our meat from the local butcher and only eat it at weekends.
And still there will be an ocean of suffering that we haven’t touched and never will.
This is where the true majesty of Buddhist wisdom shows itself, at least for me.
There’s a ‘Bodhisattva vow’ that some Buddhists take which expresses it quite well.
Beings are numberless; I vow to free them.
Delusions are inexhaustible; I vow to end them.
Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.
The Buddha’s way is unsurpassable; I vow to realize it.
This is what we’re dealing with. Buddhist practice may have formalised it into a nice four-line quote, but everyone with a heart has to have some position on this stuff.
Suffering is endless? I vow to end it.
Wisdom is incomprehensible? I vow to live from it.
Desires go on forever? OK, OK, I’m working on it!
By fully engaging with the realities of life, and with the impossibility of them, we have a chance to drop into a different kind of realisation.
We act with skill, potency and passion to make the world a better place, while at the same time knowing these acts are essentially meaningless in their wider context.
This is what Buddhist wisdom is really about.