SocraticGadfly: Buddhism — not so nonviolent; listen up, Sam Harris

March 11, 2015

Buddhism — not so nonviolent; listen up, Sam Harris

I've blogged before about this, in noting some of Sam Harris' wrongness but per something on Facebook I saw a few days ago, it needs yet more commentary.

Buddhism, contra Sam Harris, and contra the many disciples of him who thinks he knows no wrong, does not have any special claim on nonviolence.

From that blog post, I noted:

The 969 Movement in Burma is murderously Islamophobic; more here. And Bodu Bala Sena is an Islamophobic movement in Sri Lanka.

But, it's time to take that far back into the roots of Buddhism.

Here, without mentioning one particular sutra, is an overview on Buddhists' wide varieties of thought on the use of force, within both Theravada and Mahayana traditions.

Wiki talks about the concept of Upaya, an old Sanskrit one and thus early to Buddhism, behind that first sutra. Let's look at this:

Upaya-kaushalya is a concept emphasizing that practitioners may use their own specific methods or techniques that fit the situation in order to gain enlightenment. The implication is that even if a technique, view, etc., is not ultimately "true" in the highest sense, it may still be an expedient practice to perform or view to hold; i.e., it may bring the practitioner closer to the true realization in a similar way. The exercise of skill to which it refers, the ability to adapt one's message to the audience, is of enormous importance in the Pali Canon.
In short, this is a Buddhist equivalent of utilitarianism, obviously. And, per that overview link above, it's often used by many a Buddhist not only to justify violence in self-defense (vs. running away from an aggressor) but offensive violence. In that sense, it's like a Buddhist equivalent of utilitarianism run through a filter of Shi'ite, or even more, Druze beliefs about the acceptability of lying.

The last sentence is also important. The Pali Canon is the core scripture of Theravada. So, this isn't some late grafting onto Buddhism, it's a starting point. Or, since we're comparing Buddhism to other religions, it's like Paul talking about being "all things to all men," or, better yet, a spin on that (which Paul might have accepted, "make your appearance as seeming to be all things to all men.")

Wiki's entry on capital punishment in the world's great religions, specifically the Buddhism sub-section, talks more about how active violence in Buddhism can be, and is, justified by the idea of upaya.

Beyond that in general, the "utilitarianism" of upaya is clearly behind the Two Truths Doctrine, which theoretically allows Buddhists to engage in various types of dissembling about their ultimate beliefs or intents if deemed necessary.

The subtlety of Buddhism, combined with this utilitarianism at its core, should make one take all claims of the inherent nonviolence of Buddhism with multiple grains of salt. So, too should the violence used as part of teaching by Zen monks. So should Kung Fu, which arose from Shaolin monastic martial arts.

I claim no expertise on Buddhism. It overall seems less violent than the monotheistic religions of the west, but it's certainly not nonviolent in general. Not even Jainism, at least going by that religion's graphic hells, is totally nonviolent — it just defers a much greater chunk of violence to the afterlife.

And, if a Sam Harris knows as much about Buddhism as he tries to make his disciples think he does, then he knows all about this, and therefore is spreading myth about Buddhism. And, if he doesn't know this, then he should stop pretending to be so authoritative about Buddhism.

In either way, I just heard a petard cranking up, once again, for old Sammy Boy.

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