For decades many humanists have felt a special kinship with the religion of Buddhism. Humanist Paul Chiariello sums it up most emphatically on his blog, Applied Sentience:
Buddhism and Humanism are two geographical sides of the same philosophical coin. They’re twins with the same DNA, separated at birth, and brought up by different parents. The same dish with spices added by different cultures. Buddhism is Eastern Humanism and Humanism is Western Buddhism.
The American Humanist Association has picked up on this. As part of its effort to find points of contact and opportunities for dialogue between humanism and various world religions, it has drawn attention in online essays to significant areas of common ground—with the essay on Buddhism going into significant detail.
This affinity is certainly understandable. After all, the earliest form of Buddhism is nontheistic and followers are encouraged to engage in mental, emotional, and ethical self-development. Buddhists are also supportive of science. And finally, the religion has garnered a reputation for compassion in response to human suffering and for pacifism in response to violence.
But some humanists ask how any Buddhist-humanist connection can make sense in light of the anti-intellectual trends in Buddhism, particularly Zen, that disparage the reasoning process as an impediment to achieving a pure perceptive experiential state. Humanists have also objected to assorted Buddhist supernatural or paranormal beliefs, including rebirth (a variant of reincarnation), karma (a cosmic law of justice), and certain claimed powers of the mind over matter.
And where is the compassion in the Buddhist notion of being demoted in a next life for sins of a past life? Comedian Julia Sweeney in her one-woman show, Letting Go of God, says:
I went to Thailand where I happened to visit a woman who was taking care of a terribly deformed boy who was an orphan. I said to his caretaker, “It’s so good of you to be taking care of this poor boy.” She said, “Don’t say ‘poor boy.’ He must have done something terrible in a past life to be born like that.”
Lastly, if pacifism is central, how do we explain events in Sri Lanka that began in 1948 with a denial of citizenship to the Hindu Tamil minority by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, which led to the bloody Sri Lankan civil war, filled with atrocities on both sides, that lasted from to 1983 to 2009?
This last point can prove the most disconcerting of all, not only because of the horrors involved but because such violence by Buddhists isn’t unique to this event or even to modern times. In the Middle Ages, for example, a Nestorian Christian named Kuchlug secured the throne of the religiously tolerant Kara-Khitan empire in Central Asia. But then he converted to Buddhism. From that point on he began viciously persecuting the Muslims among his subjects—something his predecessors had never done. You could say an ironic karma caught up with him when his empire was conquered and he was hunted down by Genghis Khan, whose famously brutal and ruthless Mongol hordes included Shamanists, Buddhists, Nestorian Christians, Daoists, and Muslims under a regime of religious freedom.
The most recent example of Buddhist persecution of Muslims, however, occurred late last year when approximately 625,000 predominately Muslim Rohingya were expelled from predominately Buddhist Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. These stateless people, often regarded today as “the world’s most persecuted minority” now barely survive in refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, a nation that doesn’t want them either. And the leader of Myanmar, Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, the heroine of Burmese democracy and herself a Buddhist, has done nothing to remedy the situation. Nor has she adequately explained her government’s actions and its clearly stated policy of denying citizenship to the Rohingya, despite their having a history in the country that reaches back centuries.
A March 5 New York Times article, “Why Are We Surprised When Buddhists Are Violent?” puts all of this in sobering perspective. Authors Dan Arnold and Alicia Turner affirm the public’s general understanding that “religious traditions are human affairs, and that no matter how noble they may be in their aspirations, they display a full range of both human virtues and human failings.” Yet despite this understanding, there “remains a persistent and widespread belief that Buddhist societies really are peaceful and harmonious.” Buddhists are seen as the exception.
How did this mistaken view originate?
During the heyday of Western imperialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries there were many American and European enthusiasts of Asian traditions. One of those traditions was Buddhism. So some Buddhist religious leaders found it useful to meet these Westerners halfway and develop with them a new eclectic Buddhism that gathered together the most palatable elements from the various Buddhist sects in nations across the East, emphasizing mental discipline and meditation while disregarding the more off-putting magic, ancestor worship, sacralizing of relics, and so on.
That’s why, as Sweeney quips: “The Buddhism we get in California is all cleaned up for us.” It’s a customized variety, disconnected from its source cultures and functioning less like a religion and more like a secular self-help system. This leads Arnold and Turner to conclude, “To the extent that such deracinated expressions of Buddhist ideas are accepted as defining what Buddhism is, it can indeed be surprising to learn that the world’s Buddhists have, both in past and present, engaged in violence and destruction.”
What can humanists take home from this? One conclusion is that the more a traditional religion gets reinterpreted and “cleaned up” to look secular, the more likely humanists are to praise it, whereas the more a religion is seen in its natural habitat and in its traditional form, the more it can potentially offend humanists. Therefore, it isn’t that Buddhism is inherently more humanistic than any other faith. Under foreign influence and in order to appeal to a more humanized audience, it simply got converted in the West into a style of humanism. And humanists do like humanism.