All Buddhists are Nice People, Right?

Buddhist Myanmar

I get alerts from The New York Times on a variety of topics, including animals, adoption, religion, and philosophy, among other things.  Yesterday, this article came in my inbox, under the “philosophy” category [not religion, which in itself is interesting]: Buddhists and Violence.  The article, which actually is titled “Why are We Surprised when Buddhists are Violent,” discusses the stereotypes many people in the West have about Buddhism, specifically in the context of the tragic ethnic cleansing that is happening right now in Myanmar with the support of [and sometimes at the hands of] Buddhist monks.

The article makes the case that much of the problem stems from the fact that, in the West, much of what passes for Buddhism is better named “modern Buddhism,” a new form of Buddhism that the author describes as follows:

“This modern form of Buddhism is distinguished by a novel emphasis on meditation and by a corresponding disregard for rituals, relics, rebirth and all the other peculiarly “religious” dimensions of history’s many Buddhist traditions. The widespread embrace of modern Buddhism is reflected in familiar statements insisting that Buddhism is not a religion at all but rather (take your pick) a ‘way of life,’ a ‘philosophy’ or (reflecting recent enthusiasm for all things cognitive scientific) a ‘mind science.’  Buddhism, in such a view, is not exemplified by practices like Japanese funerary rites, Thai amulet-worship or Tibetan oracular rituals but by the blandly nonreligious mindfulness meditation now becoming more ubiquitous even than yoga. To the extent that such deracinated expressions of Buddhist ideas are accepted as defining what Buddhism is, it can indeed be surprising to learn that the world’s Buddhists have, both in past and present, engaged in violence and destruction.”

I have talked about this before, and if you are at all interested, please read the whole article–it is illuminating and complexifies the issues around religious identity and identification in helpful ways, I think.  For me, the take away is that religious stereotypes, particularly when they are born out of ignorance and misconception, are usually problematic, and get in the way of real mutual understanding and growth.

Interreligious engagement in the 21st century requires knowledge, patience and a willingness both to ask questions and to admit to being wrong–to be challenged about one’s views of the other and the world, as well as one’s views of oneself and one’s own tradition.

I want people to know me and my religion, in all my complexity–not just as a stereotype, and therefore, I need to put in the time to know others that way as well.  It is not easy, but the payoffs are definitely worth it:  to know and be known in one’s depth and nuance is beyond price, and true interreligious understanding and growth is impossible without it.  This is the price of life in our interconnected, diverse, global world, but one that is totally worth paying.

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