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Buddhist wars

One netfriend wrote:

Just curious, how many wars have been fought between or among members of the various factions within Buddhism?

And another: Bloody fights among Buddhists is a theme on reality TV in the US. They love to beat each other senseless. So much for the peaceful religion. What a crock.

And a third:

— Geez, a handful of adolescent monks fight and the whole religion/philosophy gets trashed! I’m not aware of wars between, say, Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen Buddhism, or any other combination for that matter.

And finally:

There aren’t a lot of things big enough to call a war when it comes to Buddhism, but there are a few. The Tibetian branch had a fair sized struggle with native Tibetan Animist or Shamanic types up to about the 8th-9th centuries (Christian Era), with skirmishes as late as the 12th (again C.E.)(Some of their mystical histories claim this started in about 18,000 B.C., which would make it the longest war ever (!), but a more realistic estimate is 200 years of relatively steady low key warfare and another 300 or so by fits and starts.). Picture lots of platoon sized battles in mountain passes and worse terrain, and some ambushes of town garrisons en route, but few bigger battles.

While only one side there was Buddhist, that’s the side that behaved in some ways like the US did in the “Indian” wars – i.e. “choke off their resources and starve them out”, with the animists, et. al. behaving more like the Native Americans – “Hit and run, hide in the hills”. At this point, it’s all ancient history, they have integrated many traditions and Bonpo tradition monks are almost indistinguishable to westerners from formally Buddhist monks while even the Dalai Lama incorporates some shamanistic techniques and rituals. In their defense, I don’t think the Tibetan Buddhists ever stooped to the equivalent of using Smallpox soaked blankets.

A number of the Japanese factions, and _particularly_ Zen, were pretty keen on the Japanese entering WW 2, although that may have been more capitulation to the political regime than them being a driving force behind it. Some individual Zen Buddhists were also rather couragious in opposing it (i.e. Katagiri Roshi, Suzuki Roshi), but overall, Zen supported the war at least as faithfully as any other local religion.

You might Google for some terms like “World War 2” and “Zen” together, or maybe “Tibetan Animist” and “War”, but the sites change a lot and I can’t guarentee you’ll find enough to get a feel for the history. One bunch you could look up is called the “Nu People”. They’re Northern Chinese (Tibetian influenced) Buddhists and Animists, much like modern Tibetans. The part about every male carrying a machete in public at all times was one of the things that got me wondering about the peaceful Buddhists. Of course, news from those parts is heavily constrained by the official PRC government, and should be taken with many grains of salt.

To get a “Buddhists on both sides” war, by many definitions of the word war, there would have to be two separate nations that were both mostly Buddhist. Otherwise the worst you could manage is a ‘mere’ civil war. In the same way, animist suppressions don’t count as a ‘real’ war if the UN’s borders do count. In spirit, I’d say police actions, civil wars, and native uprisings do count, but you may prefer a more formal rule for what counts as a real war.

One thing to remember if you want to research it further is the Japanese culture assumed many people will practice multiple religions at different times. A large percentage were Shinto at some points in their lives, particularly for weddings and funerals, or entering government service where it was absolutely required. So in addition to the many documented cases where someone was officially Buddhist at the time you get cases where the same person was a member of a Zen or other Buddhist sect, “puts on a Shinto hat” to write advocating the coming war, take a position with the war dept., or make stump speeches, and then went back to being a Buddhist monk after a term of government service or whatever, so technically, they weren’t listed as a Buddhist at that exact time. Often you have to read a full biography of the person to see it. It usually looks hypocritical or even schitzophrenic to Westerners, and it’s sometimes hard to see how it comes more from a very different view of what the self and its role in society is than consious duplicity.

These days, a lot of Zen practicioners regard the whole thing about the way many Christians do Christianity being used as an apologist for slavery in the Antebellum American South. There is a great deal of concern that the whole spiritual path is damaged by it.

That’s probably a lot more than anyone wants to know about Buddhists and war. Sorry if it’s overkill.


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