This past Friday, Prof. Steve Jenkins from Humboldt State University gave a lecture at the Institute of Buddhist Studies called “Compassionate Violence, Torture, and Warfare in the Bodhisattva Ideal.” (The lecture has been posted to the IBS Podcast if you’d like to check it out.) In short, it was super fascinating.
While I can certainly do no justice to his lengthy talk, and while I certainly haven’t spent the better part of the last twenty years reading countless Buddhist texts â€” in their original languages â€” I did want to put down some of the things I learned and raise some interesting questions. And, of course, talk about The Matrix.
The gist of Prof. Jenkins talk was about the large number of references to “compassionate violence” in Buddhist texts, going all the way back to very early Pali Theravada sources that contain references to the Buddha’s big, burly, armed bodyguard who routinely threatened to split people’s heads open with his vajra if they messed with the Buddha. (And it should be noted that “vajra” here referred to an actual weapon, not the spiritual/metaphorical weapon found in later tantric texts.) Prof. Jenkinks placed all of this in the context of our nascent understandings of tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism, on the one hand, and the stereotype of pacifistic Buddhists being run roughshod over by Islamic Empires and the PRC. He suggested that they probably put up a good fight.
As for the relationship to tantra, his argument was, in short, that we shouldn’t see the depictions of violence or other moral transgressions of the precepts in these texts as something radically new. There are antecedents in the earlier tradition. As for the stereotype that Buddhist are all pacifists, well, that was a bit more complicated. While not claiming that people should go out and do horribly violent things to each other, Prof. Jenkins did suggest that there is a textual tradition that dealt explicitly with how kings could compassionately defend their kingdoms and even wage compassionate war (the goal here being to not destroy infrastructure and to take your enemy alive). Moreover, he suggested that the current 14th Dalai Lama is actually a rather extraordinary figure. Previous Dalai Lamas commanded small armies, and the fact that His Holiness holds steadfastly to his doctrine of non-violence is admirable and deeply inspirational.
All of this raised a host of questions for me that I’ll not get into here, and made me think about Buddhism, Buddhist history, and Buddhist ethics in news ways. I love it when that happens!
The other interesting thing in his talk had to do with the way Buddhist thinkers conceptualized and problematized ethical situations. Over and over again they would raise specific situations and ask the critical question of whether or not some action was auspicious or inauspicious. Over and over again, the decision seemed to be that there are no moral absolutes. The auspiciousness of any action is completely dependent upon the context of the act and the intention of the actor â€” and, not unimportantly, a tacit acceptance of multiple rebirths and karmic consequences working themselves out over extremely long periods of time.
Two examples stood out. In one, the authors raise the following situation: if a person is bitten in the finger by a venomous snake, a physician will cut off the finger to stop the poison from spreading. Cutting off a finger may be a horribly violent act in one circumstance. But in this case, it’s considered deeply compassionate.
This is related to the idea of ahimsa, which Prof. Jenkins suggests should be properly translated as “do no harm.”
The other example had to do with one of the Jataka tales, a story of one of the Buddha’s past lives. In the story, the Buddha is on a boat that gets hijacked. He knows the hijacker will kill the 500 other passengers and suffer deep karmic retribution. If he tells the other 500 passengers that there’s a hijacker on board, they’ll rise up and kill the hijacker, and thus they will suffer the karmic retribution. The story is set up so the only option left to the Buddha is to kill the hijacker. But here’s the kicker. The Buddha suffers no karmic retribution. The text clearly calls this a compassionate act of killing and after this event, the Buddha goes through several more rather auspicious rebirths before being born as Siddhartha.
This story clearly demonstrates how ambiguous real moral situations can be, how there are no absolutes. And it’s fascinating to see Buddhist writers wrestling with deeply complex and nuanced issues two thousand years ago that are, all at one, eerily relevant to the times we live in now.
Which brings us back to The Matrix. The original Matrix movie came out ten years ago and has often been called a “Buddhist” movie â€” or at least one with serious Buddhist themes. I’ve never really bought into that. I’ve always thought that while the Matrix is a good movie (who doesn’t like a good sci-fi flick with robots and AI?), the fact that there is such a cavalier attitude toward killing people was really troubling for me. I mean, there’s that famous scene where Neo’s checking out the woman in the red dress. And Morpheus is talking about how, while their goal is to free the minds of the people plugged into the system, they’re still part of the system and therefore are potential enemies. Slaughtering them is completely unproblematic in the larger context saving the human race from the machines.
That always really bugged me. And it bugged me that people would claim that this is a Buddhist movie with such a clear and unequivocal acceptance of violence.
But now there’s that image of the Buddha’s big burly bodyguard and his vajra splitting the skulls of people who get in the Buddha’s way.
Let me be perfectly clear: I am not making the claim that Buddhists have an unproblematic moral authority to commit acts of violence. If anything, there was way more in Prof. Jenkin’s talk about understanding the larger karmic context and consequences of our actions and understanding that it is usually our own actions that create our enemies and that foreign policy should begin with the acceptance that we are responsible for the well being of everyone, not just us. If anything, specific situations where we must make moral choices become more complicated, and I feel encouraged to wrestle with ethical dilemmas free from absolutes.
And I think the bottom line is that we need to take seriously the basic ethical precepts of ahimsa (do no harm) and karuna (compassion) when engaging the world. But this talk opens up the conversation about what those words mean. What does it mean to do no harm? What is compassion all about? What’s the goal of compassion?
I don’t know what any of this means. But it raises interesting questions and gives us all something to think about.