SIT-A-LONG with JUNDO: Rioting Monks?

A recent news article …

Mar 29th, 2008 | BANGKOK, Thailand — Buddhist monks hurling rocks at Chinese in Tibet, or peacefully massing against Myanmar’s military, can strike jarring notes.

These scenes run counter to Buddhism’s philosophy of shunning politics and embracing even bitter enemies — something the faith has adhered to, with some tumultuous exceptions, through its 2,500-year history.

But political activism and occasional eruptions of violence have become increasingly common in Asia’s Buddhist societies as they variously struggle against foreign domination, oppressive regimes, social injustice and environmental destruction.

More monks and nuns are moving out of their monasteries and into slums and rice paddies — and sometimes into streets filled with tear gas and gunfire.

“In modern times, preaching is not enough. Monks must act to improve society, to remove evil,” says Samdhong Rinpoche, prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile and a high-ranking lama.

“There is the responsibility of every individual, monks and lay people, to act for the betterment of society,” he told The Associated Press in Dharmsala, India, discussing protests in Tibet this month that were initiated by monks.



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7 Responses to “SIT-A-LONG with JUNDO: Rioting Monks?”

  1. Alexander Says:

    Jundo,Thank you for today’s talk. The area of Buddhist ethics, socially engaged Buddhism, and political change/violence/nationalism in Buddhist circles is a hot topic in scholarship (and practice) right now.You mention self defense or violence / military action for the purpose of saving lives. This is a slippery slope, even for Buddhists! While the notion of preemptive (as compared to preventive) and legitimate responses to attack are clearly supported in Western (and Buddhist) Just War Theory, the notion of skillful and compassionate means to relieve suffering, when combined with nationalism, can lead to absurd, and brutal extremes. This debate is relevant not only within the context of US engagement in Iraq/Afghanistan (I deployed to Afghanistan and support our engagement there, I do not agree with our presence in Iraq), but more interestingly, in the support many Buddhist clerics and scholars displayed for Japanese militarism and the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” in the 1930s and 1940s. Some Buddhist commentary went to the length of supporting the extermination of Chinese civilians utilizing the doctrine of skilfull means – sentient beings were being relieved of the suffering of their existence. Similarly, the notion of selflessness and service was diverted to support giving one’s life in the service of the emperor. Many prominent Buddhists were supportive of the Japanese military government – their names would surprise you. Brian Victoria, a Soto practitioner and Australian academic has produced an extensive volume on this subject titled “”Zen at War.” I recommend it highly. Some of DT Suzuki’s writings in the 1930’s and 1940’s (supportive of Japanese expansionism) are not necessarily consistent with the image that has been cultivated of him in the U.S. as the progenitor of Zen in America. Similarly, biographies of individuals such as Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, and our own Gudo Nishijima, are not particularly instructive when their whereabouts in the 1940-45 period are discussed. This does not suggest or even imply their complicity in the events of the military regime. The evidence does suggest that Ueshiba fell into political disfavor for his objection to Japanese militarism and moved to the countryside. His affiliations with Japanese nationalists prior to the war are known however ( I would be interested in your wife’s observations as I understand she is a practitioner of Aikido). Nishijima, from what I understand, became a monk in 1941 and probably suffered the privations and shortages of war on top of those endured in a monastic existence. Victoria’s account of Buddhist support for Japanese militarism is moving and testifies to the fact that Buddhists have not been immune to the currents of politics and human emotion.Another emerging field is that of Chinese Buddhist resistance to the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930s and 1940s. The government initially excluded monastics from conscription, but later created programs by which monks supported or directly participated in activities against Japanese forces.The example you mention, of Sri Lanka, is highly relevant. The conflict with the Tamils has produced a considerable amount of doctrine in support of nation and Buddhism as a national religion. Teresa Bartolomeusz (spelling) has done extensive research on this topic.Finally, the divide between the Dalai Lama’s doctrine of compassion and engagement for the Chinese occupiers is being challenged by some of the younger generation who desire freedom in this life, as opposed to a later one…I apologize for the long comment. The area of Just War Theory in Western, Islamic, and Buddhist traditions is a current research area for me, influenced my my own professional activity and education in the military and as an academic in my later career.Thank you for introducing this topic today.Gassho,AlexI would find it fascinating to ask Nishijima Sensei for his perspective on these years one day. Gassho,Alex

  2. Alexander Says:

    apropos of today’s topic, an excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor regarding the younger generation in Tibet and their attitude twoard nonviolence…

  3. Longdog Says:

    Thnaks for that Alex. BBC iplayer has a series up there ‘a year in tibet’ (free to stream)part of which follows the monastery there and the chinese government influences. It is apparent from the series that as Jundo said many of the young monks are there through tradition rather than vocation and the Lama has difficulty getting them to adhear to Buddhist ethics and not go to night clubs to meet women LOL!

  4. oxeye Says:

    While it is likely that there has been some violent buddhist involvement in the uprisings against authority in Burma and Tibet, it is also likely that much of the violence was staged by the governments as an excuse to round up the participating monks and put it down the protests as quickly as possible.

  5. jundo cohen Says:

    Hi Alex,About a year ago, I taped a talk with Nishijima Roshi on the subject of his early years through the war. Unfortunately, the tape is in transit to Japan right now, so I cannot look back. However, I remember that I asked Roshi about the war years. He responded, if I recall (I am a bit foggy on the details right now) that he was in some administrative position in China (I believe he was conscripted), but did not see combat personally. He did not think the war was a good idea at the time, but was only a very young man and not in a position to speak up in those times. When he returned to Japan after the war, he found his family’s house destroyed in American fire bombings and, I believe, family members had been killed. He was not a monk at the time (that came many years later), although he did return to his Buddhist studies and law studies at the University of Tokyo. He also has said that he recalls Homeless Kodo Sawaki Roshi, his first teacher, making anti-war and anti-militarist statements at Sesshin, although the Brian Victoria book seems to mention quotes from him that seem quite the opposite. I gave a “Sit-a-Long with Jundo” talk last year on Victoria’s book “Zen at War”. Unfortunately, that talk is also unavailable. But my point was that, basically, Zen is like moral Jello and can be stretched and fitted to fit almost any political or moral belief. In pre-war Japan, however, it was stretched to the breaking point in support of Japanese nationalism. However, I think, the Victoria books (there are a couple) do overstate the case slightly by focusing only on the most extreme examples and most nationalistic crazies among the vast Buddhist clergy (although some of those crazies did later become famous as progenitors of Zen in the West). In fact, I think most of the Buddhist clergy at the time was just trying to survive amid the rabid Shintoist atmosphere, or was caught up in the general fervor the swept the populace (happened in America too many times), or was opposed to the war and militarism but not in any position to speak out (the secret police would fast come knocking at the door). Let me make clear that, personally, I think that our Precepts require that military force only be used as a last resort, after everything else has been tried, and only in a clear case where it is necessary to save a great number of lives. In fact, I think we would have done better to flood the Middle East (and maybe Afghanistan too) with trillions of dollars in schools, hospitals, agricultural aid, movies and such … instead of trillions of dollars in bombs. I think we would have had a more positive impact.Gassho, Jundo

  6. Alexander Says:

    Jundo,Thank you for filling in some of the gaps here and adding context to my remarks. My own experience supports what you have shared here, namely, that there are no “winners” in war and all suffer – combatants and civilians of all sides. My point in discussing the Buddhist perspective is to reflect upon a common misconception in the West that Buddhism is uniformly nonviolent, and illustrate briefly some historical episodes where this paradox has been tested.I agree with you in the case of Afghanistan and Iraq. My first deployment to the Middle East was Beirut in 1982 and 1983 – I would add that my perspective in being in Afghanistan in 2005 had changed substantially – I think books and schools and health care yield far more positive results in the long term than weaponry and military action. It is “karmically appropriate” that in 2005 my job as a Naval Special Warfare Officer was to supervise the building of a 250-bed field hospital donated by the Jordanians, instead of “breaking things” and chasing bad guys. Have you read the book “Three Cups of Tea?” I think that should be required reading at for all about to deploy in these areas.The use of force is justified only in very specific circumstances where all other alternative shave been exhausted. In the study of the sword, there is a euphemism that once the sword has been drawn it must taste blood. The decision to “draw,” or deploy our military assets as a nation have been made far too carelessly – and the power we wield carries with it a heavy responsibility – we bear responsibility for those who are affected by our actions. The analogy of the life-giving sword.Thanks again for your thorough comment.Gassho,Alex

  7. Alexander Says:

    Jundo,As always, look for the other side of the story, and the “middle way” is perhaps appropriate.I have done some research and found that the topic of Sawaki Kodo, wartime service, and writings have been covered quite energetically and thoroughly. I have more homework to do. Thank you for tolerating my lack of awareness of this topic…Gassho,Alex

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