Persecution and extremism

The videos recently posted on YouTube mocking the Islamic prophet appear to have been the catalyst for horrific violence throughout the Arab nations. Christopher Stevens, and three other American diplomats were killed in an attack on the US embassy in Benghazi on Tuesday. Although the amateur film “Innocence of Muslims” portrayal of the Islamic prophet is certainly ill conceived, and will undoubtedly be perceived as an insult from the West against Islam following years of questionable foreign policy by the US and their allies, why do people have to kill because of it?

I have been practicing meditation now for some time, and recently met with a local Zen buddhist. I am reminded of something that was said during my initial conversation with one of the practitioners – that religious teachings “are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.”

A fundamental criteria by which spiritual teachings must be judged is the effect they have on people, society and environment. If a teaching that is supposed to promote peace and tolerance can so easily lead its supporters to behave violently in its name, then one must ask why this is so.

The extremists that carry out violence in the name of Islam share something with religious fanatics throughout history. They hold a common belief that:

1. the world is generally broken,
2. it was broken by non-believers,
3. only believers can save the world,
4. saving the world incurs persecution from non-believers,
5. persecution is a sign of correct practice, reinforcing 1, 2 & 3

Almost sounds like the psychology of a cult doesn’t it? That’s because it is the psychology of a cult. That’s not to label Islam as a cult – in commonly understanding Islam is no more cult-like than any of the monotheistic religions. However, watching the news on TV, there appear to be a lot of people who appear ready to kill for their faith right now. So again, one should consider what aspect of the teachings encourage this behaviour, or fail to negate it.

There is just no scope within the teachings of Buddhism for running around and killing in the name of the Buddha or the dharma (although the current behaviour of the Myanmar monks is clearly incongruous).

The five aspects of the persecution complex are not unique to Islamic extremists. While the Lotus Sutra certainly predicted that it would be met with hatred and jealousy in later years, this idea appears to have become dogmatised within Nichiren Buddhism. Indeed, persecution of practitioners is seen as a sign of correct practice, and is actively encouraged and celebrated, particularly within the SGI. Indeed, the 5 factors above are all promoted within the SGI, although perhaps not explicitly, it is undeniably the tacit understanding of members.

As Thich Nhat Hanh says, life is full of suffering, we should not have to add to it with our practice! We all experience suffering, regardless of our Buddhist path, and by and large any Buddhist practitioner should regard suffering as fuel for transformation and happiness. I use the word regard here because I think it is mistaken to actively avoid or welcome suffering in this way.

To believe we attract more suffering because of our practice is verging on magical thinking, and I fail to characterise this in any other way than egocentric. It presupposes that the ultimate reality treats you differently in some way based upon your faith – and whether this is explained through divine consciousness, or through an esoteric mechanism free of personality it is still impossible to explain without thinking about the practitioner and everyone else in a dualistic manner.



5 Responses to Persecution and extremism

  1. georgie September 15, 2012 at 1:49 pm #

    Nichiren Buddhism explains that our life permeates all phenomena and all phenomena permeate our life (non-dualism). We cannot escape the 4 universal sufferings: birth, old age, sickness and death. But – through our practice, everyone can transform these, revealing their, True Self (which is Buddha), purity, eternity and happiness. Difficulties naturally arise in life and we are encouraged to ‘use’ these as fuel for our enlightenment…in other words we challenge OURSELVES when difficulties arise – we do NOT challenge others. In fact in many writings Nichiren remonstrates very strongly with these obstacles, negative forces which we ourselves manifest, (Nichiren calls them demons and devils) BUT he never encourages us to “fight” them with anything other than daimoku – i.e: Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. Nichren also shows compassion for the misguided and ignorant ‘oppressors’ who or whatever they may be; e.g. anything from governments to illnesses, by strongly demanding that they leave the practitioner alone but also by advising, the “demons” and reminding them that if they continue to plague the practitioner they themselves will only end up in the “hell of incessant suffering”. He never suggests that he himself, nor the practitioner, will be the one to throw them into that hell, he explains that they will be doing that for themselves. He further explains that ignorance of the strict law of cause and effect, i.e. our delusions, and our enlightenment, are one and the same – non-dual. Without challenging our fundamental ignorance (foolishness) we can never attain enlightenment. This struggle is personal, but because of the principle – that we are not-dual, i.e. that our lives permeate all phenomena, when we chant the daimoku, to change an aspect of our own fundamental negativity, we also affect our environment, that is, society and our communities.
    I therefore see no parallel between the present Muslim riots and Nichiren Buddhism. The rioters are fuelled by fear and hatred and i am absolutely sure that that is a distortion of their teachings, perpetrated by people with a political axe to grind.

  2. Matt September 18, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    I totally agree with George here and I can’t speak for Steve’s experience of the SGI, maybe he really has encountered this stuff, but it doesn’t map onto mine. I tend to find within the SGI a lot of respect for non-Buddhists and great people of all kinds of traditions. I also feel I should add, as someone living in Cairo, that the representations in the West of what is happening here are totally misguided and erroneous. I note that Steve doesn’t generalise about all Muslims and takes care to talk about only extremists. But even those who are involved in violence don’t necessarily think that Islam is the only way to be a good person (although this is part of 19th century Islamist Hassan al-Banna’s ideology this doesn’t translate to people’s everyday life) – at least a big portion of the time they just feel sick and angry about constantly being insulted by a culture they feel a lot of respect for (the West), leading to a feeling of conflict within themselves. In any case, the protests here were so tiny and underwhelming. It has made people curious and feel like they need to ask me questions – so I’ve had a lot of dialogues about the issue with people, but very few are really angry. A lot of people feel hurt and 99.9% of them are responding reasonably to that hurt.

    I should add also that I’m open here about being a buddhist and I get a lot of respect. “Mash’alla! Inta Boozi!” (thank God, you’re a buddhist – one of the most ironic and touching sentiments I’ve ever heard). I’ve also met several muslims who clearly have very high and serene life-states. I’m sick of the stereotyping of Islam, in my opinion it’s a religion really worthy of respect.

    Steve I hope you’re really well. I didn’t want to start another big debate or anything but I felt like you might be interested in my perspective as a Buddhist in the middle of something that you’re talking about.

    • steve September 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm #

      Hey Matt, welcome back! I did notice your IP was in that part of the world but didn’t want to give the game away until you did. It must give you a particular insight into the culture and daily going’s on in an Islamic community. Mash’alla! Inta Boozi! – that’s great and made me smile. I think the Dalai Lama has a point when he says that Religion as we currently regard it is perhaps not best serving the needs of humanity any more. The most spiritual Muslims would find a lot in common with the most spiritual practitioners of other faiths, because they are more connected to the ends than the means. I do some work for a couple of Muslim customers in the UK, and I’m always interested to chat with them. They’re as embarrassed by fanatics as any Christian is of the KKK. It’s fascinating to hear your point of view.

  3. Matt September 18, 2012 at 2:03 pm #

    Yes, it’s the same as anything. If you stick just to the words then you won’t get it. As someone with training in analytic philosophy this has been a challenging aspect because I am always bringing a framework of interpretation very peculiar to a specific time and place in human history to Buddhist writings. It has been so beneficial to let that drop away.

    I saw the Dalai Lama’s comments and I am not sure. I think possibly I agree with him but it depends on the spirit of what he means, and I don’t know enough about him to know exactly what that is.

    There is a Sufi Muslim saying that I came across the other day: Perhaps God will make you Sin, and through this bring you closer to him. I am paraphrasing here. I found it really interesting. It reminded me of turning poison into medicine, although I am aware that you can trample on other religions a bit by finding too many similarities, and that is something I have to learn to avoid doing, because there is a real richness there that is worth protecting.

    I have to say that I find many atheists as dogmatic and ‘religious’ in the negative sense as many religious people. It all depends on the spirit of what you bring to it. You can even be territorial about the idea of non-duality etc, and other concepts with a neutral flavouring.

    Anyway, here’s my random thoughts! Take care.

    • steve September 18, 2012 at 6:15 pm #

      Hi Matt, the quote from the Dalai Lama was on the huff website.

      “Perhaps God will make you Sin, and through this bring you closer to him” – I guess you would have to have a good understanding of Islamic spirituality, but I would understand this as meaning sin produces suffering, and through suffering you come closer to God – the ultimate. Makes a lot of sense to me. I don’t think finding similarities is trampling, but we can sometimes try to “make it fit” in ways that are more contrived, which could be what you mean?

      I totally agree about the dogma of athiesism. It is a negation dogma, and doesn’t really uphold anything in particular, which makes it very one sided. Of course, you can talk about compassion without religion, but I suspect few people who call themselves athiests have really considered the topic of wisdom and compassion in any depth. I guess if they want to reinvent the wheel in terms of what we call buddhist psychology, then that’s their prerogative.

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