Buddhism and Violence

Buddhism and Islam came off as the two "faith communities" to whom other Americans feel least warm, according to a Faith Matters survey of 2007. Robert Putnam and David Campbell ponder this in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which Sightings has visited twice before. Mormons come in third as a stimulator of "least warm" feelings among others. The authors comment that negative media attention hurts Mormons and Muslims, but "Buddhists do not get the same negative media attention" as do those two. So something else must account for the negative ratings of Buddhism.

Reach for your search engine, Google or otherwise, and ask "which religion is most peaceful?" Once you get past the answers of apologists-of course, Muslims think Islam is, and Christians think Christianity is-it's clear that Buddhism is seen as most peaceful.

What gives? Read on in the polls and interviews and you will find that Buddhists are kept at a distance by some because they are at a distance from others. Buddhists profit from their distance. If familiarity breeds contempt against Muslims, unfamiliarity also does not help them or Buddhists. Despite this picture derived from those polls and interviews, one still has to ponder: Jews, Christians, and Muslims suffer in the media because their texts and traditions are often so warlike. Ask your friend who practices Buddhism why it does not suffer? Answer: Because its texts and traditions breed peace.

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As an equal opportunity admirer and critic of the "faith communities" on this subject, I also have wondered how Buddhism gets its peaceful reputation. A review by Katherine Wharton of two books, Buddhist Warfare and The Six Perfections illuminates. Buddhist Warfare, says Wharton, "forms an accurate history of violence in the name of religion," and cites sutras which shock, since they "justify killing with detailed reference to the Buddha's central philosophical tenants. The book therefore presents a uniquely Buddhist 'heart of darkness.'" Brian Victoria's essay in The Six Perfections brings the issue to modern times: D. T. Suzuki (d. 1966), "the most influential proponent of Zen to the West in the twentieth century . . . gave his unqualified support to the 'unity of Zen and the sword.'"

Between ancient and modern times, as another contributor to these symposia finds and cites, was Chinese monk Yi-hiuan, who urged his hearers to "kill everything you encounter, internally as well as externally! Kill the Buddha! Kill your father and mother! Kill your closest friends!"

In the eyes of many apologists and observers, the Buddhist concept of "emptiness" is, from a distance, a guarantor of peace, over against the fullness of Warrior-God texts in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But Wharton is convinced by these books that "emptiness" can and does also promote violence, and is not by itself the solution.

Now, why does Sightings, which keeps track of celebrations of peace and reconciliation, so often point to violence in texts and traditions? To give aid and comfort to "the New Atheists," who solicit our aid in killing all religion(s) to assure peace? Hardly. To suggest that condemning Muslims (or specific others) because of the violence of some among them is unfair? Partly. Most important it is to provide a basis for hope for those who work on ecumenical or interfaith grounds and to point to the reconciliatory texts and work on the basis of them, but without illusions. Respondent publics agree that the religious texts point finally to shalom, peace, reconciliation. Their final promise deserves attention all along the way. The final word might come first.


David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010).

Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, editors, Buddhist Warfare (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

Katherine Wharton, "Buddhists at war: The dark side of what is often thought to be the most peaceful of religions," The Times Literary Supplement, September 29, 2010.

Dale S. Wright, The Six Imperfections: Buddhism and the Cultivation of Character (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009).

Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at Original Source: Sightings – A biweekly, electronic editorial published by the Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

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