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

The Onion satirizes Buddhism: “Extremist Cell Vows to Unleash Tranquility On West” November 20, 2013
(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):

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"Very informative Article. i am Buddhist follower and i loved to read it.Thank you so ..."

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"I also live on Lamma and my feelings echo yours - HK doesn't feel as ..."

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