Sunday, November 18, 2012

Like Buddha With Mace

Tim Rackett:

Whilst Buddhism is not violent in and of itself, as a lived tradition it can lend itself to dark and deadly uses. There are Buddhist dimensions to the Thai state’s violent struggle to control the country’s far South. To make sense of insurgent violence and the response to it, we have to understand the intricate interdependencies and interconnections among “race”, rule and religion in Thailand. To that end, Buddhist Fury examines “the role of Thai Buddhist monks in a religio-political conflict” (p. 5): the impact of violence on Buddhist monks and the ways in which, as actors in their own right, those monks have an effect on the ongoing violence. Its author asks whether the practices and habits of Buddhist monks in a violent environment exacerbate or ameliorate violence.

...Buddhism as a “lived tradition”, outside Western idealized “Platonic” representations, is diverse, fluid and contradictory. Buddhist truth and traditions are not universal and eternal but are rather enmeshed with particular interests and power relations. How, then, is the non-violent image of Buddhism maintained? Such an image is achieved, argues Jerryson, because its practitioners and its analysts create a fantasy version of Buddhism: “fictitious people and practice—virtual religious models, morally airbrushed to enhance the message” (p. 185). The problem with this mythic Buddhism is that its dark side is ignored: extreme phenomena such as monks with guns, “soldier-monks”, militarized temples, Buddhist militia. In Thailand, religious nationalism legitimates violence, offensive and defensive, against the enemies of “nation, religion and king”. Monks as spiritual exemplars are credited with the power to purify and order hearts and minds and social relations, as Christine Gray has argued.

Speaking of the ways in which supposedly-transcendent ideals end up subordinate to more prosaic concerns, I have to admit being disappointed to see identity politics being asserted within one of the few philosophical worldviews aimed at dissipating the illusion of identity:

"Buddhism goes against identity. Race is a very superficial way of looking at things," he said. "Hopefully at some point the (people of color) will be relaxed enough within their humanity to be able to come into a greater room full of people and feel that same degree of relaxation, but that's a stage of development and that can't be pushed or forced upon them. And at some point they do, like Tuere, she just naturally started to come [to the broader meditation groups]. But it may take long."

...The goal of "more diverse dharma," as Smith calls it, has proliferated across the nation in recent years. Race is just one factor, though the most easily seen in many cases. In places such as New York and the San Francisco Bay Area, though, diversity has become an ever wider effort. At the East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, Calif., there are Buddhist groups for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender meditators, people with disabilities and those with allergies to perfumes. In New Mexico and Arizona, Buddhists and Native Americans have joined to launch meditation centers that combine teachings from both traditions and include traditional Native healing rituals. In western Massachusetts, meditation communities have formed "diversity councils" to recruit minority practitioners. In Atlanta, meditators thought separate meditation groups were too divisive, so they launched a broad campaign against all "the 'isms."

I've long been aware that the form of Buddhism that interested me as a teenager wasn't necessarily representative of the religion in its many forms around the world, which is why I've never bothered identifying as a Buddhist. When the term, the label, the signifier gets fixed in place like that, it just becomes a strong magnet for misunderstandings and useless distractions. Is my "Buddhism" too white, middle-class, logocentric, etc.? Fine, then, I'm not a Buddhist. You can keep that shriveled husk of a descriptor for yourself. (I'll just start calling myself a panta rheist for the time being.)