October 14, 2010

Emptiness: Violent or Compassionate?

In “Buddhists at war,” a recent piece for the Times Literary Supplement, Katherine Wharton reviews two books: Buddhist Warfare, a collection of essays on Buddhist violence edited by Michael K. Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer, and The Six Perfections, a treatise on Buddhist ethics by Dale S. Wright. In her review, Wharton reminds us that Buddhism, as much as any living expression of a world religion, can fall prey to human imperfections. Wharton highlights essays in Buddhist Warfare that examine topics like how the Buddhist teaching of no-self informed Japanese military training during the Asia-Pacific War and how a certain Mahayana text has been used to justify “compassionate torture.”

While it is useful to study and remember these misunderstandings and misuses of Buddhist ideas, I hope that it’s not breaking news to anybody that religion is a human pursuit and therefore prone to human tendencies, such as violence. What’s discouraging in “Buddhists at war” is that Wharton uses the violent expressions of Buddhist ideas in Buddhist Warfare to chide Wright’s The Six Perfections, which contains useful methods for cultivating positive Buddhist virtues. [Full disclosure: Wright was a professor of mine at Occidental College.] Wharton argues that Wright’s exploration of “emptiness” is naïve in that it doesn’t see the potential for “emptiness” to be misappropriated. She writes:

Wright also chronically overestimates the curative value of identifying with “interdependency”. This overestimation is so stubborn that it leads him to cut himself away from the greatest resource he has: traditional Mahayana. In traditional Mahayana, the idea of “interdependency”, or emptiness, is always moderated by that of karma, the principle that good always leads to good and bad to bad. Wright argues that contemporary Buddhism has no need for such an antiquated principle of systematic cosmic justice. He argues that the world view of modern physics excludes the possibility of karma. Wright’s essential ethical teaching, then, his cure of all evil, is that we must all identify with a concept of “interdependency” without justice.

What Wharton fails to understand here is that even though "interdependency," as Wright understands it, is without a conceptual justice of right and wrong/good and bad, there is a non-conceptual compassion built-in to “interdependency.” You aren’t nonviolent because it’s right thing to do per se, but rather because it’s the natural thing to do when you realize that we’re fundamentally co-dependent. When we understand this it makes no more sense to care for oneself than it does to care for everybody else. Understanding emptiness in a way that leads to violence, as those do in Buddhist Warfare, is a misunderstanding of the term.

So, sure, many people have historically misunderstood and misused the concept of “emptiness.” That’s to be expected. And we have to do our best to make sure that people don’t use religious ideas to legitimize violence. Wharton would agree with this, I think, which is why I can’t figure out why she comes down hard on Wright’s The Six Perfections, a book that earnestly encourages people to cultivate the virtues of generosity, tolerance, morality, energy, meditation, and wisdom.

UPDATE: Buddhist blogger Barbara O'Brien tackles Wharton's review.

Also, a comment from Michael Jerryson, co-editor of Buddhist Warfare, on The Reformed Buddhist Blog.

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Tricycle » More on “Buddhists at war”'s picture

[...] a recent blog entry, “Emptiness: Violent or Compassionate?“, I highlighted a book review from the Times Literary Supplement by Katherine Wharton [...]

Dale Wright's picture

Katherine Wharton`s review makes 2 important points. First, that Buddhist Warfare is a fine book and that it will help educate western Buddhists about the complexities of Buddhist history where many instances of evil are present. As western Buddhists become more knowledgeable about Buddhist history, it will be easier to recognize, as Sam Mowe says, that all religions are human creations and that so far we have no model of a perfectly enlightened culture. Non-Buddhists resent the fact that Buddhism is often uncritically taken to be the perfect religion of peace and compassion, and, like Wharton, they are pleased when scholars focus their attention on the "dark side" of Buddhist history. This is understandable to me and I too would praise the book Buddhist Warfare.

The second admirable point about Wharton`s review is one that she makes in critique of my book, The Six Perfections. She claims that nothing can prevent Buddhist emptiness or any other teaching from being used to justify violence, and that the "curative value of interdependence" is often naively overestimated in Buddhism. On this point, she and Alan (above) are surely right, although I find it hard to understand how a reading of my book could have suggested that I presume such a thing. As we all know from the political realm, some strong individualists take interdependence to be profoundly regrettable and no amount of meditation on that concept will lead them to compassion. Thieves concede interdependence too, and they are happy to recognize all the ways their professional success depends on others. What matters is what you do with the concept of interdependence.

Beyond those two points of praise for Wharton`s review, I`m stumped, even incredulous. I have been misunderstood before, but this sets a new standard. Let me just make two points.

First, by naming her review, "Buddhists at War," it is clear what she has on her mind. Her complaint about The Six Perfections is that it fails to do what Buddhist Warfare does--describe the harsh, sometimes warlike realities of Buddhist history. She could have picked any other book off the shelf and found that it too failed to do what she wanted done in telling the story of the "dark side" of Buddhist history. In fact, The Six Perfections wasn`t even "describing," was not about Buddhist history at all. Instead it sought to take Buddhist ideals up into contemporary reflection by asking, in effect, how these resources might be used in our own efforts to articulate what kinds of human lives we might admire and what we might be justified in regarding as true human excellence. That is a different task from the one Wharton wants done, but at least as important. Does Wharton really think that it is "naive" to give critical consideration to the ideals that give orientation to her life? Does she really think that if she studied all the instances of evil in the long and diverse history of Buddhist cultures she would have gotten pretty much everything valuable that can be learned from this tradition? I hope not.

Second, Wharton is distressed that the book`s "...abandonment of the principle of karma has many negative implications..." In fact, chapter two is a concerted effort to reconstruct the principle of karma so that it`s potential as a powerful moral principle might be better realized. The reason Wharton thinks that I have abandoned the principle of karma is that, like many Hindus and Buddhists, she defines karma in terms of a belief in cosmic justice. My claim in the book was that this definition is unfortunate because it undermines the potential of karma to function as an honest moral principle in our time. My reason for saying that is that if you define karma as cosmic justice then you must also be a literal believer in reincarnation in the same way that Christian beliefs in cosmic justice necessitate belief in heaven and hell in order to straighten out the obvious injustices that we all experience in life. When corporate criminals lead long and prosperous lives and when good people suffer inordinantly, the only way you can still insist that there is cosmic justice is to assume that this takes place in another world or another life. Better, in my view, to see karma as the Buddhist principle of "dependent arising" as it applies to human freedom--What you do in life shapes the kind of person you become, regardless of whether the cosmos rewards with riches and happiness or poverty and suffering. That seems true to me. Beyond that I have no reasonable evidence for heavenly worlds or souls passing from one body to another, and would therefore be hesitant to suggest that people adhere to such beliefs, even if I were naively convinced that believing what you cannot possibly know to be true is good for people.

But if Wharton is correct that in The Six Perfections "the clear demarcation of good and evil in karma theory is abandoned," then she is surely right to condemn it. And if she is right then I was badly deluded to hope that the book might stimulate serious, critical reflection on the idea of the good in our own time and place. I am clearly in no position to decide that, but neither is Wharton. You`ll have to do it.

Alan's picture

I think I read Wharton a little differently. I don't think she is arguing so much that emptiness and interdependency are flawed principles, but rather that they don't guarantee compassionate behavior. They can be misused. She then argues that Buddhists owe it to themselves to draw a line between compassionate use and misuse of Buddhist principles.

While there may be details in her analysis that I might argue with, I don't think her general position is problematic. The language and vocabulary of Buddhist literature has confused me ever since I began studying it. My teachers have been enormously helpful in trying to explain no-self, emptiness, and so on. Their patient instruction has steered me away from a lot of silly ideas that have popped into my head. Why shouldn't they also steer me away from violent actions as well?

Dominic Gomez's picture

I can imagine people with a distorted understanding of Buddhism equating the "emptiness" of another person with being non-human...as just a rag doll with no spiritual innards. So what's the big deal with just blowing him or her away? There's nothing there anyway. After all, if you meet the Buddha...kill him.

Leah C's picture

According to Wharton, Wright is overestimating the "curative value of interdependency," but I think she misses the mark by criticizing and underestimating Wright's use (or lack) of traditional Mahayana Buddhism in his work. As a proponent of "identifying with 'interdependency,'" and a very knowledgeable source on Buddhist thought and practice, I find it hard to believe that Wright does not understand or admit the traditional "dependence" of the notion of "interdependency" on karma (and not Wharton's oversimplified version). Rather his goal is to focus on the contemporary ways that people can use tangible concepts and experiences to create good. In a scientific world where "systematic cosmic justice" can be hard for many to wrap their heads around, I too see the value in promoting the experience and practice of "interdependency" as a guide for mindful living.

Richard Collins's picture

For oversimplification, it would be hard to beat this: "karma, the principle that good always leads to good and bad to bad." This is not a definition of karma that I recognize. Distinguishing between a good or a bad effect of any action can be done only from a limited position of self-interest, a position that can have no perspective on the grand notion of karma.

AGB's picture

Good job, Sam! Dale'd be proud.

Maura's picture

Clear, engaged review--and a kind defense of your old teacher. For current examples of Buddhism gone awry, take a look at Sri Lanka and its treatment of dissident journalists and prisoners of the war against the Tamils. We can see how such delusions arise (applying the 4 Noble Truths), and then try to respond skilfully. On the relation of karma, interdependency, and emptiness, which is a bit skimped in the review, I would offer my unexpert take: The operations of karma are what they are precisely because of interdependency--there's no interdependency without it; if I kill you, the consequences are felt all over the vast network; the fact of interdependency also entails that because everything is in flux, responding to shifts and events (conditions) everywhere, then nothing is single or permanent, that is, everything is empty.

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