Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Buddha's Army


 In May this year, at Amaravati in England, there was a five-day gathering of monks and nuns from all over the world. They were mostly (but not exclusively) of Western origin, and some (but by no means all) hailed from branch monasteries of Wat Pah Pong in Thailand. What they had in common was that they all considered themselves to be disciples of Wat Pah Pong’s founder, Ven Ajahn Chah, although the majority had neither met him nor trained under him. But then again, many of Ajahn Chah’s samana disciples weren’t present. The identity of the group is therefore difficult to define. Even more vague to define was the purpose of the meeting. There were many Dhamma-talks, attended by hundreds of people – but less than ten of the assembly gave these teachings. Topics were discussed with no intention to arrive at a conclusion. This was no synod convened to debate the knottier points of the teachings, nor a conference to which invited speakers presented papers on ‘Buddhism and …’, nor was it to indict or castigate miscreants. In fact there was hardly any business to speak of: the abbots agreed to propose the admission of one monastery to the Wat Pah Pong communion, and at the end of the session, there was a consensus that the five-day meeting had been so meaningful that we should have another one in three years’ time.

The rationale behind such meetings was that those who wished to meet do so in order to meet. Somehow in that mingling of people who see each other rarely and have different views (and to my knowledge included monks who have clashed with each other over the years) something precious is brought to the fore that encourages and balances us. We didn't gather to decide who’s right or wrong, or the way Buddhism is or should be; we met to get beyond our personal views and perspectives. And if that sounds facile, I'd add that it touches into a central issue in Dhamma-practice: attachment to views. And that sharing time together creates mutual respect and harmony.  Even Buddhists don’t always arrive at this.

To get beyond views doesn't mean that one shouldn't have any. Of course we all do – but because of that it becomes important to express them in order to reflect on their validity. So: a major theme concerned how we are living the Buddha's Way? Are we getting too tech-savvy and losing touch with simplicity? Or do gadgets make things simpler in a global age? Is the transcendent core of the Dhamma being gutted by ‘this world only’ secularism, or does mindfulness for businessmen, athletes and stress reduction maintain the Buddha's intention to alleviate human suffering? Are monasteries failing to deal with issues of the world, or do they present valuable models of communality, harmlessness and frugality? Are we actualizing what we hold dear, or merely being oppositional to what we don’t approve of? And speaking personally, the point for me is to contemplate when and how I get tight and righteous, to understand what I am defending and to come to terms with my anxiety or judgements.


There were many more topics – in fact too many to cover – but one that sprang up concerned layteachers teaching mindfulness to the military. Despite the apparent contradiction in employing Dhamma-practice in the theatre of war, the argument in its favour (one that found no support in the meeting) is that the use of mindfulness may lessen the damage that soldiers do. That people who have chosen to join the armed forces have done so with the knowledge that in serving their country, they may very well be ordered to fire on others with intent to kill. So, the argument goes, would it not be better if, instead of panicking under fire and shooting everything in sight (as with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam), such personnel remained calm and only shot selected targets when necessary? The topic can enlarge to the old conundrum: is there such a thing as a ‘just war’? Take the case of Cambodia, where the Khmer Rouge slaughtered 20% of the population and almost all the monks: wouldn’t some sort of armed defensive action have been justifiable? Come to think of it, didn’t Buddhist monks in Thailand give blessings to tanks in order to ‘defend the country against Communism’? But when does a protective policing mission turn into the need to knock out the insurgents – which in turn triggers the counterattacks we call 'terrorism'?

The conundrum becomes easier to unpick when we acknowledge that these instances, although involving Buddhists, are around their secular concerns (such as power and territory) and are best dealt with by secular means. And mindfulness, divorced from its application as ‘the direct path to nibbana’, is currently being used as a secular tool for many other non-nibbanic purposes. So fair enough; when people start killing others the Buddha's position is clear: 'hatred is never resolved by hatred', but when those in conflict don't attend to Dhamma, then wise secular means are needed. Ideally this entails resolution by dialogue supervised by an impartial third party; failing that containment of aggression may have to be effected through military means.


The vital function that Dhamma-practice performs is one of understanding and loosening the attachment to views, to all religions and to all ‘isms’ – which in many cases forms the source of the conflict.  So it is a cruel irony when militant action is being advocated on behalf of ‘Buddhism.’  Take the example of Ashin Wiratha in Burma and the Bodu Bala Sena group in Sri Lanka, both of which parties encourage a firm resistance to Islam that has resulted in massacres of Muslims and destruction of Muslim shrines. Of course, they have their justifications: there are claims that conflict was initiated by Muslims, and that the Buddhists see themselves and their culture being overwhelmed by proactive Muslims who are backed by wealthy Islamic nations. But the Buddhist fundamentalist attack on Muslims led to the Muslim fundamentalist attack on the Sri Maha Bodhi temple at Bodh-Gaya. And so it goes: human conflict reverberates as ever.

Buddhism has sprouted fundamentalist views since the time of Devadatta (the Buddha's cousin) who advocated stricter renunciant standards, accused the Buddha of being lax and even instigated attempts on his life. As often as monks have lapsed into decadence through material greed, others have railed and fought– often with each other. Nichiren condemned all forms of Buddhism that differed from the Lotus Sutra; Tibetan lineages have used armies against each other; Zen masters supported the Japanese aggression in the Second World War. Christian fundamentalists and jihadists you are not alone! Maybe there should be an Inter-Faith Fundamentalist Meeting to share views and strategies. If so, they'd probably conclude that Jesus, with his ‘forgive your enemies’ stuff was flaky, and that the Buddha, who exhibited little interest in recruiting people to the cause, wasn't very committed either.

Nigrodha, you may think: ‘The ascetic Gotama says this in order to get disciples.’ But you should not regard it like that. Let him who is your teacher remain your teacher. Or you may think: ‘He wants us to abandon our rules.’ But…Let your rules remain your rules. Or you may think: ‘He wants us to abandon our way of life.’ … Let your way of life remain as it was … I do not speak for any of these reasons.

There are, Nigrodha, unwholesome things that have not been abandoned, tainted, conducive to rebirth, fearful, productive of painful results in the future … It is for the abandonment of these things that I teach Dhamma. If you practise accordingly, these tainted things will be abandoned … and you will attain to and dwell in this very life by your own insight and realization, in the fullness of perfected wisdom. D.25.23 (Udumbarika-Sihanāda sutta)

And why was the Buddha so cool about setting up Buddhism? My reflection is that once you identify people (including yourself) with actions, appearance or belief, then you set up the basis for closing down human empathy, and all hell breaks loose.

The problem is worsened when Dhamma is identified with a nation-state. ‘Buddhism’ as a religious culture began when Dhamma-values were espoused by emperor Asoka in the middle of the third century BCE. Not only did Asoka avow and encourage the Dhamma, he also supported Buddhist monasteries and convened a synod at Patna in order to clarify the teachings and purify the Sangha by expelling monks of heretical views. The image of the benign Buddhist ruler who patronises the Sangha has been modelled throughout Asia ever since. However although the intent may be benevolent and the association of the ruler with Dhamma may indeed be good for that society, the association of the State with the Sangha can have side-effects. That is, the Triple Gem comes to endorse the State, its aims, institutions and survival, and the Sangha becomes worldly and political.

Such actions may save Buddhists but lose Buddhism. This is dilemma of many Buddhist countries. The Sangha needs governance, but who governs it? The original model was of governance by Vinaya as enacted by small local fraternities. And what the nation-state finds difficult is that the Sangha isn’t a centralized institution that can be easily controlled.  Certainly this means that even in the Buddha's time disagreement was usual and occasionally led to conflict, but this is why the Buddha's exhortation was to meet often, in large assemblies, and to attend to matters in harmony. Accordingly, the Vinaya stipulates that one cannot come to a decision unless all relevant parties are physically present, to which is added the Dhamma-instruction to regard each other with kindness to the degree of sharing food and lodgings together. Rather than create a centralized institution, the Buddha’s instruction was to live together and build up empathy and mutual respect. These rather than political debate and legal finesse were the basis for determining what was correct; the details could change in accordance with circumstance. So there is no Buddhist ideology. But isn't it the case in human history, that after the combatants have battered each other to a standstill, there is a wave of recognition that ideology doesn't bring around happiness and well-being?  In fact it is conducive to just the opposite.

Will Buddhism survive? Only when and where people put the Buddha's teachings into practice. That may sound uncertain, but history bears witness to the precariousness of human life and all its empires and organizations. And that it is by transcending the State that the Dhamma survives the State's demise. The Islamic conquest of Northern India destroyed monasteries and monks, but it didn't destroy the Dhamma. The Soviet takeover of Mongolia caused the deaths of many monks, but with the passing of that power, Buddhism is emerging there again. The Chinese conquest of Tibet had much the same effect.  Buddhism is growing again China and has spread to the West. Put even more simply and obviously, the death of the Buddha didn't destroy Buddha-Dhamma. It's only Buddhists who destroy Buddhism.

So the next time you go to a conference on Buddhism and the rights and wrongs of the world, it’s good to ask yourself: ‘Is this message conducive to the understanding and relinquishment of the cause of suffering? Is this presentation respectful of those I disagree with?’ If it is, you can be sure that it is rightly said and is line with the Way of the Awakened one.

And how is a person practising neither for his welfare nor for the welfare of others? Here, some person does not himself abstain from the destruction of life and does not encourage others to abstain from the destruction of life ... He does not himself abstain from liquor...and does not encourage others to abstain...monks, does a person live neither for his own good nor for the good of others? He neither practises for the removal of lust, hatred and delusion himself, nor does he encourage others to do so. A 4.99

And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one is protecting oneself? By patience, harmlessness, loving-kindness and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.
S. 47.19

 (all quotes from Wisdom Publications edition, trans. M. Walshe, Nyanaponika Thera and Bhikkhu Bodhi)