The Onion satirizes Buddhism: “Extremist Cell Vows to Unleash Tranquility On West”

(clip of the facebook posting from The Onion)

You can read the full story for yourself at The Onion.

But after settling in for what I thought would be a light-hearted parody on Buddhism’s ever-so-peaceful image in the West, I began to feel a bit uneasy. The article is clever enough (although the mish-mash of Buddhist traditions leaves much to be desired) but the parody instead is on the Western image of Islamic terrorism (principally that of al-Qaeda).

It may just be that I recently finished a grueling up-and-down week of teaching Islam to undergraduates in a world religions course which could be making me a bit overly sensitive. (Happily, the class was far more ‘up’ than ‘down’ with a couple in varying contexts wishing that the course were required for all undergrads and/or taught in high schools.)

But I don’t know.

Do lines like this make us laugh or cringe?:

“In the name of ___, we will stop at nothing to unleash a firestorm of ____, ____, and ____ upon the West,”

inserting “the Great Teacher” where we might expect “Allah” and “empathy,” “compassion,” and “true selflessness” where we would expect terms of violence.

For me it was definitely more of a cringe.

After that, this got me positively squeemish:

Kammaṭṭhāna [the 'extremist cell'] first came to international prominence in 1997, when five of its members boarded a New York City subway car and held 42 hostages in a state of transcendent serenity for seven hours while performing atonal syllabic chants. The group then claimed responsibility for a severe 2004 outbreak of interconnectedness in central London, later traced to a 23-year-old Kammaṭṭhāna sleeper cell operative who sat cross-legged in Trafalgar Square and read aloud from The Gateless Gate collection of 13th-century Zen koans.

There was, for one, a real subway attack by so-called Buddhists (a syncretic New Religious Movement or ‘cult’ led by a self-styled Buddhist monk) in Japan about 20 years ago involving sarin gas, killing twelve and injuring thousands. But of course the references to New York and London seem to draw our minds too much to the al-Queda attacks in those cities in 1993, 2001, and 2005.

The humor, and I’m sure that is the intent, is simply lost for me in the proximity to a very horrific reality. And it’s a reality not just for those who were traumatized in the real-life attacks, but one lived each day by Muslims (and often enough Sikhs) around the world who are stereotyped as violent al-Queda or Taliban members or supporters. So my criticism isn’t for its treatment of Buddhism’s image in the West, which I think is pretty fair game for parody, but rather for using and perhaps exacerbating a very damaging stereotype placed on Muslims and (again) Sikhs.

But it is the Onion after all. I’m the last one to want to put down comedy or free expression and I’m happy to raise questions around practices and ideas I see as potentially harmful (c.f. past posts on the “cult of relics” and “death in the desert – on ‘Geshe’ Michael Roach“).

So perhaps in my teaching and living in an interfaith household with friends who have faced blatant racism around me and all of that, I have become a bit too sensitive.

How did you feel about the story? Laugh? Cringe? Shrug? Let me know in the comments.

Here’s a cross-section of just a few of the comments on the original post (which is public) – don’t miss the ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’):

A ‘joke’?

And then there was this (see, for instance #4 here or this recent post on Buddhist Violence):

  • Richard Harrold

    “I can’t believe it’s not Buddha.” I am ROTFL! Yes. It is the Onion. One must consider the source. And like it or not, the point of Buddhism is to see things as they really are, not as how we are.

  • http://www.108zenbooks.com Genju

    Honestly, I snickered because I took it as a poke to the naive, eudamonismic-spouting forms of New Age-y pseudoBuddhism. At the same time, it is a sober snapshot of the reality that even Buddhism – however warped may its assimilation into Western culture be – is as prone to taking an extremist approach to the world. Sadly, I know too many fundamentalist Buddhist even among those I thought would have enough sense to not let their brains fall out of their open mind. So this parody struck at many levels.

    • justinwhitaker

      Thanks Genju (and Richard) for chiming in. Glad to hear it was probably just a bit of over-sensitivity on my part. I really do love The Onion and would hate to see them ever go ‘too far’ — but from the sounds of things here and elsewhere, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

  • RustbeltRick

    I’ve been offended by a handful of Onion articles over the years, but not often. And I’m not offended by this one.

  • http://www.persephonespath.com/ PersephoneK

    I’m a former anti-terrorism analyst, and an atheist. I personally think this is funny. Maybe its the gallows humor one develops when working in law enforcement. You’d be amazed at what humans have the capacity to laugh at and find humor in. I personally think that is one of our great gifts of nature.

    That said, it would have been funnier to use “Jainism” as the parody of extremist peace.

  • Iron56

    Buddhism wasn’t being satirized. Missed the point entirely.

    • Quietus

      The author is aware of that. You missed the point of this article.

  • Duck_of_Death

    It’s a harmless article in my view. But the satire ends just before the last line in the piece:

    “At press time, sources confirmed that President Obama has authorized a preemptive strike on Kammaṭṭhāna and deployed a fleet of predator drones to bomb Tibet.”

    Nothing funny about that. And it will probably happen as soon as the CIA/Homeland Security read the article.

  • Balboa

    You have become way too sensitive. That was a funny article. My suggestion: don’t go looking for reasons to take offense.

  • magistramorous

    From what I’ve garnered from the Council on Foreign Relations’ website, these people are obsessed with the Book of Revelation, which makes a comparison with the Abrahamic tradition tenable. Still, Persephonek is right to say that Jainism would’ve made for a better comparison. How could an extremist Jain justify the use of violence? By definition, that person would cease to become a Jain, as famous atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris likes to point out!


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