Stephen Jenkins in the Guardian has just published an interesting comment piece on the Dalai Lama’s response to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. He notes the shock that many people experienced when the Dalai Lama condoned the killing. Jenkins argues that this kind of reaction is conditioned more by our projections of Buddhism as an essentially pacifist religion rather than being a true reflection of what actual Buddhists say or think. In fact, as the recent book Buddhist Warfare makes clear, Buddhism has historically had all sorts of ways of condoning violence in a wide range of societies. One of these strategies is to argue that the negative karma associated with a violent act is outweighed by its benefits, especially when committed with noble intentions and in the absence of anger, greed or ignorance. This was, for example, how the right-wing Thai monk Phra Kitthiwutho infamously claimed that killing communists would produce less demerit (bap) than the merit (bun) derived from protecting Buddhism. In a similar vein, Jenkins states that:
Buddhists work out their values through stories of Buddha’s past lives, which show him in myriad roles, such as a battle-elephant or minister defending his besieged city. The following story is analogous to a terrorist situation. It is known throughout northern Buddhism. Communists even used it to rouse Chinese Buddhists to fight in Korea. The Buddha, in a past life as a ship’s captain named Super Compassionate, discovered a criminal on board who intended to kill the 500 passengers. If he told the passengers, they would panic and become killers themselves, as happened on a Southwest Airlines flight in 2000. With no other way out, he compassionately stabbed the criminal to death. Captain Compassionate saved the passengers not only from murder, but from becoming murderers themselves. Unlike him, they would have killed in rage and suffered hell. He saved the criminal from becoming a mass murderer and even worse suffering. He himself generated vast karmic merit by acting with compassion.
This case is interesting both for the way in which a Buddhist leader engages with an event of global significance, but it also illustrates the position Buddhism has in the Western imaginary as a particular kind of Other — non-violent, non-materialistic, non-modern etc — against which “we” contrast ourselves.