Here is his question and Thay’s answer:
Support Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village.
Here is his question and Thay’s answer:
Support Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village.
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’):
This will most likely be the last I write on this topic. Discussions on my previous post are ongoing (here, here, and here), and appear to be getting increasingly thoughtful. And folks in Washington DC are beginning to lament the fact that the news cycle has passed this by, The mass shooting America barely noticed and Not all mass shootings are equal in the eyes of the media or the public.
But before moving on completely, I did want to note two Buddhist blogs that have introduced other important angles on the shooting:
I point to Danny’s article in particular for introducing the “gun” angle alongside the other important discussions. While I disagree with the Tricycle editors’ suggestion that “We don’t think questions like “What does it mean to be a Buddhist?” or “How could a Buddhist do such a thing?” are at all relevant here,” I do see the need for this tragedy to once again lead citizens (and sanghas?) to push for sane gun laws in the US. From reading comments on my own posts and elsewhere, Buddhists in the West are still wrestling with “what it means to be a Buddhist” and incidents like this do offer important opportunities for reflection and perhaps debate on that question. Likewise, given the stereotypes discussed in my last post and in Danny’s and Nathan’s pieces, “How could a Buddhist do such a thing?” is certainly relevant, at least to many scholars, practitioners, and the general public.
But it doesn’t have to be one topic or the other. It can be both/and. We can discuss both of these issues and more without losing sight of the important issue of gun laws raised by Tricycle. And if Tricycle is serious about having a discussion focused on guns in particular, perhaps they could devote an upcoming issue to the topic. As people are growing increasingly aware, the violence in our society must be confronted at its roots, and who better to do so than a major Buddhist periodical?
Saving what is in many ways the best for last: Nathan’s article at Buddhist Peace Fellowship carefully approaches the issue asking “how can we, as a Buddhist community, sit with and learn from this?” No distancing, no diversions, no definitional semantics, simply sifting through the numerous issues raised by the shooting. This is the kind of open, empathetic, questioning, and honest writing I hope to see more of in the Western Buddhist world.
“Monday’s mass shooting at the Washington D.C. Navy Yard hits home for American Buddhists because the gunman was one of us,” Nathan begins.
His article goes on to address a multitude of questions and perspectives, opening space for concrete solutions to be discussed. Questions that so many, including myself, didn’t even think to ask. “Will Black Buddhists in the U.S. face heightened scrutiny following this incident? Will this stir up the violent black man narrative in our sanghas, making it even more difficult for black male American Buddhists to practice and enjoy community?”
This is the kind of incident that, if handled poorly, can greatly divide an already divided American sangha. I actually hesitate to even use such a label. We’re basically a bunch of fragmented groups here in the states, struggling to even understand and get along with each other, when the effort to attempt is even bothered. Some folks want to dismiss race in this case, but that’s even more foolish than trying to argue that Alexis wasn’t Buddhist.
Obviously there are a number of angles that Buddhists could approach this event from in order to create something positive in the wake of tragedy. How Western sanghas address guns is one approach. Conversations around race and inter-sangha communication is another. Another is pushing for better national funding, especially in the U.S. for mental health care and developing mental illness awareness programs within sanghas (while there is an Australian Association of Buddhist Counsellors and Psychotherapists, which does training courses, there doesn’t appear to be anything similar in the US, Canada, or England).
These are all very good aspects of the story and our varying layers of connection to it to think about and discuss. Let us hope that this has all been the beginning of many needed conversations rather than the end.
As with any human tragedy of this kind, there are countless angles or perspectives from which to view and discuss the shootings earlier this week. In this post and the next I’ll highlight four that I found particularly useful. The first two draw our attention to our religious stereotyping of both Buddhism and Islam:
My own first writing on this (The First American Buddhist Terrorist?) has sparked intense discussion, often revolving around the title itself. Can the words “Buddhist” and “Terrorist” be put together? As it turns out, the act has not been officially labeled “terrorism” (hence the question mark), so the question may be moot in this instance. However, it is one worth pondering and discussing if only to better see our own cultural stereotypes around Buddhism as a “religion of peace.” After discussing several historical instances of Buddhists engaged in violence and the use of Buddhist concepts for justification, Prothero writes in his article:
…it is simply not the case that Buddhism is a “religion of peace.”
Like Christianity and Islam and every other religion that has endured for more than a few centuries, practitioners of Buddhism know how to do both war and peace. If the face of Islam today in American popular culture is Osama bin Laden with his trademark AK-47, then that image needs to be balanced by Muslims who fight only for peace. And if the face of Buddhism today is the Dalai Lama with his trademark grin, then that image needs to be balanced by Buddhists who shoot to kill.
Joshua Eaton similarly states:
In the popular imagination, Buddhism is a religion of peace and Islam is one of war. We may wonder how a Buddhist could commit such an atrocity—despite Buddhism’s history of violence in places like Burma, Japan, Tibet and Sri Lanka [see: Monks With Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence, by Michael Jerryson in RD]. However, when the perpetrator is a Muslim we assume, as a matter of course, that religion was their primary motivation—despite the verses in the Qur’an that say murdering a single innocent person is the same as murdering all of humanity…. Buddhists do not commit violence, it seems, therefore no one who commits violence can be a Buddhist.
What do you think? Do we need the Dalai Lama balanced by “Buddhists who shoot to kill” to form a fair and realistic picture of Buddhism?
As a scholar and educator I found these notions of balance helpful. When something awful like this happens, we should ask what we can learn from this. Confronting our stereotypes (aka myths) about religion is essential if we are to grow as individuals, sanghas, and societies in an ever-more cosmopolitan and religiously diverse world. The fact that the shooter was a Buddhist allows a teaching/learning moment. It doesn’t mean we condemn or blame Buddhism in its ideal form or to suggest specifically Buddhist motivations behind Alexis’s actions (and in reading many comments this seems to be the implication some people are drawing), but rather that we learn to see the tradition(s) more clearly, historical/human warts and all.
Concerning the Washington Post article where I am quoted (along with Rev. Danny Fisher, Charles Jones, and Clark Strand), most scholars have thought it was an acceptable story, while the comment section there (as with Prothero’s and Easton’s above) was filled with very strong degree of dislike and disagreement (to put it mildly).
To get a handle on how the press should cover these stories, we turn to the Patheos blog on the media and religion, “Get Religion.” Discussing this topic and the Washington Post article in particular, they state:
So long as religious affiliation isn’t treated as the end of the discussion — as opposed to an important angle to a complex story — you see that it can help readers and news consumers desperate to understand the latest tragic shooting that has left Americans dead and their families and friends in mourning.
None of the stories I have read treated Alexis’s religious affiliation as “the end of the discussion.” Instead they do us a service in breaking down the stereotypes about Buddhism that have led some to question whether Alexis was a Buddhist at all.