If You Meet the Buddha on the Road

Buddhism, Politics, and Violence

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Michael Jerryson
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     2018.
     240 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780190683566.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This is an important contribution to the field of religion and violence, as well as being a useful addition to both Buddhist and Southeast Asia studies. Michael Jerryson focuses particularly on the concept of harm (himsa) in the Buddhist tradition, starting with questions of direct physical violence and warfare, but also addresses questions around structural violence and harm. Notably, Jerryson notes that the studies behind this book have led to restrictions in his work, especially in the Thai context, as he has addressed sensitive issues with political connotations.

The six chapters are: “Buddhist Paths to Violence”; “State Violence and Buddhist Monks”; “The Violence of Gender Discrimination”; “The Negotiation of Violence: Buddhist Military Chaplains”; “The Violence of Trauma: Buddhist and Muslim Coping Strategies”; and, “Violence against Buddha: A History of Blasphemy.” In addition, a substantial postscript addresses “Buddhist Authority, Politics, and Violence.” The first chapter is, perhaps, the most notable. It successfully challenges the often-touted mantra that Buddhist scriptures and doctrines do not justify violence, or harm, in any situation, by showing means employed to get around the injunction of ahimsa (non-harm). From doctrinal vicissitudes to the conception of the Buddhist king, or chakravartin, Jerryson shows that despite ahimsa being a central virtue there are scriptural and doctrinal justifications from Buddhists to kill and enact harm. He pays particular attention to the concept of himsa itself and how it has been conceptualized. He goes well beyond well-trodden paths around the role of the Mahavamsa. My only complaint is that, in this chapter, I often wanted more detail on many avenues that were mentioned. Indeed, this chapter could usefully have become an entire book by itself. No doubt publishing costs and wordcount played a role in keeping this chapter shorter than it could have been.

The question of where and how violence is legitimated in Buddhist contexts was continued into chapter 2, which focused primarily on Thailand and explored what the author sees as the structural violence of the Thai state. Here, Jerryson focused on the way that recent kings have been perceived as Buddhist monarchs, and the role that monastics have played in supporting this is considered. He also explores other Southeast Asian contexts such as Myanmar, but with less depth than the Thai example. The focus on Thailand is maintained in chapter 3, with Jerryson suggesting that, in Buddhist terms, the refusal to recognize bhikkuni (Buddhist nuns) ordination is a form of himsa. This is a chapter in which the author really shows how his focus extends well beyond the usual focus on violence/harm as physical or direct, using theorists such as John Galtung. This could have been developed more, and the book lacked a  well put together discussion on exactly how such theories relate to the wider Buddhist concept of himsa, which would have been useful. Nevertheless, the point was made, and this is one of the best and most detailed case studies of the  arguments against bhikkuni ordination in this context. I will certainly be adding it to my reading lists on this topic.

The next three chapters each take a very different perspective. One explores the role of Buddhist “chaplains,” and he looks primarily at the US and Thailand in drawing out related but distinct trajectories. Another looks at fieldwork conducted in Southern Thailand in what have been conflict zones in the ongoing violence there in terms of how both Buddhists and Muslims have coped with the trauma experienced. Carefully nuancing the discussion, Jerryson argues that the self-reporting shows that, contrary to what many may expect, the Muslim community’s religious resources have provided a better and more effective coping mechanism than the Buddhist community’s resources. Jerryson discusses many factors that play into this. The final chapter looks at the way that blasphemy is treated in Buddhism, and Jerryson counters suggestions that it is not a Buddhist concept by showing that related concepts are found in the tradition. Again, focusing primarily on Thailand, he looks at the contemporary context, with a particular focus on one lay organization and its campaign for respect for Buddha images.

The postscript, co-written with the expert on Myanmar Matthew Walton, looks particularly at the way that studies in religion have highlighted both textual/doctrinal and ritual/praxis sources as authorities, but in doing so have missed the crucial role of culture. Looking at the example of Wirathu in Myanmar, it is argued that such foci fail to see that his rhetoric is deeply “religious” because of the cultural authority of the monk. As such, regardless of whether scriptural resources are used or whether actions are embedded in specific rituals, concerning Wirathu’s speech in the role of a monk (though there have been debates around his actual standing in the sangha [monastic community]), the authors argue that Buddhist religious authority underlies his calls for violence and Islamophobic rhetoric. While addressing the Buddhist context, the general issue they raise has important resonances in the wider study of religion.

Overall, this is an excellent and important study, and a number of the chapters are amongst the best overviews of the areas they cover, with the first being especially noteworthy. As noted, I would have liked to have seen this chapter extended. I also often got a sense that there was a certain lack of connection across the chapters; it almost feels more like an edited book with various independent studies around a central theme, rather than a fully integrated monograph. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the fact that I learned from this book, while it is also an important contribution to the discussions. I can see many instructors adding chapters as readings for upper level courses across a wide range of subjects.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Paul Hedges is Associate Professor of Interreligious Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Jerryson is Professor of Religious Studies at Youngstown University. He is the co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence and the editor of the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism.

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