A Review of Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia

By Marchman, Kendall | Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Annual 2016 | Go to article overview

A Review of Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia


Marchman, Kendall, Journal of Buddhist Ethics


This book evolved out of a workshop hosted by the University of Oslo in 2009. As a result, it is a bit uneven, but there are many standout chapters overall. The book contains eleven chapters, distributed into three sections: Part I discusses nationalism, Part II focuses on militarism, and Part III examines Buddhist justification theories. The chapters feature an impressive roster of authors from around the world.

The book aims to rectify the common Western misperception that, unlike the Abrahamic traditions, violence is foreign to Buddhism. Many of the writers accomplish this goal, especially the chapters that focus on ongoing conflicts in Thailand and Sri Lanka. However, despite the title of Buddhism and Violence, readers seeking discussion about physically aggressive Buddhist monks actually committing violent acts will likely come away disappointed. Instead, the scholars in this book mostly focus on how and why Buddhism in modern Asia is often swept up in nationalist rhetoric and campaigns. Buddhist monks are rarely on the front lines of these campaigns--though they are targets of violence--but they are often essential supporting voices for nationalist agendas. A few scholars note that even acquiescent Buddhist leaders who are not mouthpieces for their respective countries tacitly condone militarism and violence by not speaking out against it. The book is a welcome contribution to the field, and should benefit scholars teaching upper-level courses on religion and violence as well as those seeking information about how Buddhism and nationalism are so closely aligned in Modern Asia.

The book begins with an introduction by one of the editors, Vladimir Tikhonov. Instead of beginning with a discussion of modern Buddhism, Tikhonov points to the confluence of religion and statecraft around the world and throughout history. Examples from Christianity, Daoism, Confucianism, Hellenistic religion, and others are given to demonstrate how these religions wrestle with the prevalence of violence. Tikhonov recognizes the distinction in their philosophies between "illicit and licit violence." While these traditions frowned upon the former, they recognized the necessity and inevitability of the latter. The recognition of the necessity and legitimacy of licit violence in conjunction with statecraft required theories that explained, codified, and most importantly, justified violent action. Tikhonov most often uses Christianity to demonstrate this process, going so far as not to even mention Buddhism until more than halfway through the Introduction. He begins his discussion of Buddhism by noting how Buddhist notions of violence are remarkably similar to the Christian stance: "On one hand, violence is seen as an endemic evil of the profane world bound by ignorance of truth, attachments, and cravings.... On the other hand, the early adepts of Buddha's Law, very much like their Christian counterparts, prided themselves on being different from the fallen world" (6-7). He moves forward providing brief examples of how early Buddhism interacted with violence, most notably mentioning how the Buddha himself did not preach non-violence to the Kings of his day due to the belief that it was a king's duty to strengthen and defend his kingdom. In other words, even the Buddha recognized the occasional necessity of violence. Tikhonov moves to the modern era in his conclusion. He points out how "post-Kantian modern intellectuals" who sought religious philosophies that espoused their modern peaceful ideals latched onto Buddhism, choosing to believe it was different (i.e., more rational) than other religions. This misperception of Buddhism is still alive and well in the West, and all the following chapters work to dismantle that notion.

In the first chapter, "Sinhala Ethno-nationalisms and Militarization in Sri Lanka," Mahinda Deegalle displays the role of the Sinhalese Buddhist community in "one of the most violent and militarized societies on the planet" (15). …

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