If you are a faithful reader of my blogs or have had the opportunity to listen to my podcasts you will know that I have been going on lately about Buddhist terrorism. Yes, I am referring to that oddly-phrased form of violent extremism which I imagine strikes most as oxymoronic (can peaceful Buddhists REALLY engage in terrorism?) And if you have indeed read my posts you already know the answer is yes (a quick search told me that I have used the words “Buddhist extremism/terrorism” 34 times since I began this blog in May 2015).
The manifestation of this form of terrorism most familiar to many would be the current scourge of Buddhist-infused hatred directed mostly against Muslims in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand (although Christians have also been targeted in Sri Lanka). The more astute reader may have cited the bizarre Aum Shinrikyo quasi Buddhist cult in Japan in the 1990s. Aside from these examples, however, I’d bet that you would assume that, like other terrorist ‘movements’, Buddhist violent extremism is a recent phenomenon.
I came across a very interesting article on the Aeon Web site on Nissho Inoue, a convicted Japanese domestic terrorist and lay disciple of one of Japan’s most famous modern Zen masters, Gempo Yamamoto. Inoue had once been the leader of a terrorist band, popularly known as the ‘Blood Oath Corps’, which was responsible for the deaths of two of Japan’s political and financial leaders in the spring of 1932, with plans to assassinate many more.
In the midst of the Great Depression and a government crackdown on left-wing activists accused of ‘dangerous thoughts’ as defined by the Peace Preservation Law, Inoue became radicalised. After receiving some Zen training he headed up a Buddhist temple where initial normative religious instruction led to political activism and militancy. In his own words: “In an emergency situation emergency measures are necessary. What is essential is to restore life to the nation. Discussions over the methods for doing this can come later, much later…We had taken it upon ourselves to engage in destruction, aware that we would perish in the process.”
Drawing on the lessons of a 13th-century Zen collection of koans Inoue maintained that “Revolution employs compassion on behalf of the society of the nation. Therefore those who wish to participate in revolution must have a mind of great compassion toward the society of the nation. In light of this there must be no thought of reward for participating in revolution.” In other words, the use of violence was actually compassionate Buddhism!
The terrorist group sought to assassinate (their terrorist method of choice) 20 Japanese political and financial leaders but managed to kill only two before the band’s members were arrested. At his trial Inoue again emphasised the links between his acts of violence and Buddhism: ” I was primarily guided by Buddhist thought in what I did. That is to say, I believe the teachings of the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism as they presently exist in Japan are wonderful.” Inoue’s Zen master Yamamoto testified for his disciple on trial stating ” It is true that if, motivated by an evil mind, someone should kill so much as a single ant, as many as 136 hells await that person … Yet, the Buddha, being absolute, has stated that when there are those who destroy social harmony and injure the polity of the state, then even if they are called good men killing them is not a crime. “
In the end Inoue was convicted and given a life sentence, although he was released a scant six years later. Incredibly, this Buddhist terrorist was invited by the then Prime Minister to serve as an ‘advisor’ and never expressed remorse for his role in the assassinations. On the contrary: he felt that his actions had “dealt a blow to the transgressors of the Buddha’s teachings.”
So what are the lessons here? There are several:
a) any ideology, including religion, can be used to justify terrorism, even Buddhism;
b) terrorism is not a new phenomenon;
c) terrorists sometimes never apologise for their actions;
d) extremists will go to inordinate ends to use ideas and sacred teachings to make their violent acts acceptable or even preferable.
The campaign of terror spurred by Inoue based on his interpretation of Buddhism should give pause to those who maintain that certain religions (i.e. Islam) are inherently violent (hint: no they are not). It has been my experience that many religions have served as the foundation for terrorist movements and that the ways in which terrorists use and misuse doctrine are all but incomprehensible to normative believers. We might want to bear that in mind when we think and write about terrorism based on religions.
At the same time it perhaps gives new meaning to the phrase “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”.
PS This is as good a time as any to promote my new book, When Religion Kills, to be published by Lynne Rienner this winter.