Friendly Feudalism: The Tibet Myth

Article by Michael Parenti.
Along with the blood drenched landscape of religious conflict there is the experience of inner peace and solace that every religion promises, none more so than Buddhism. Standing in marked contrast to the intolerant savagery of other religions, Buddhism is neither fanatical nor dogmatic–so say its adherents. For many of them Buddhism is less a theology and more a meditative and investigative discipline intended to promote an inner harmony and enlightenment while directing us to a path of right living. Generally, the spiritual focus is not only on oneself but on the welfare of others. One tries to put aside egoistic pursuits and gain a deeper understanding of one’s connection to all people and things. “Socially engaged Buddhism” tries to blend individual liberation with responsible social action in order to build an enlightened society.

A glance at history, however, reveals that not all the many and widely varying forms of Buddhism have been free of doctrinal fanaticism, nor free of the violent and exploitative pursuits so characteristic of other religions. In Sri Lanka there is a legendary and almost sacred recorded history about the triumphant battles waged by Buddhist kings of yore. During the twentieth century, Buddhists clashed violently with each other and with non-Buddhists in Thailand, Burma, Korea, Japan, India, and elsewhere. In Sri Lanka, armed battles between Buddhist Sinhalese and Hindu Tamils have taken many lives on both sides. In 1998 the U.S. State Department listed thirty of the world’s most violent and dangerous extremist groups. Over half of them were religious, specifically Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist.

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  1. This topic of religion is an area where I would definitely disagree with radical left-libertarian types and for that matter, the majority of libertarians in that I don’t believe that religion in and of itself has been responsible for a whole lot of violence and destruction. I would point out that it is inaccurate to say that a religion has “violent and exploitative pursuits” as only people can have such things, not any set of ideas though they can preach them.

    My own view is that most of the negative attributes that humans have are a product of biology and I think that claim can be substantiated by the fact that most of these things are seen in other species, including the ones most related to humans. I don’t think that anyone (that I have heard of) would seriously seriously claim that the higher primates have any sort of religion, even of the most simplest form. My own hope (which has dwindled substantially) is that human beings due to our higher attributes can overcome our more primitive instincts and I have not signed on yet to the conservative fatalism on this matter.

    I don’t know as much about Buddhism so I will refrain from discussing the examples that Parenti gives, but in the case of Christianity, the violence that associate with it did not become a part of it until the religion become closely fused with the state. In fact before it was legalized, the request of people of the Christian religion was simply for tolerance (Justin Martyr’s “First Apology is a good example). Also, the Emperor Constantine did not actually persecute pagans, he simply allowed toleration of Christianity, it would not become the official religion until the late 4th century. I’m also skeptical of the claim it the Roman Empire fell because of Christianity, for one thing, it did not fall in the east until the 15th century and they maintained a high level of civilization in the Byzantine Empire. The Islamic societies of course in the early middle ages were known for their science and philosophy, probably the most advanced at that time.

    Now as for the supposed religious inspiration violence, that seems to me to be in tension with the idea religious are hypocrites. It should be noted that in any religion, a large number of members tend to be nominal members so it is hard to really put to attribute to much influence to religion on their behavior. A good demonstration of that is to consider that the majority of Americans claim to be Christians of some variety and almost all Christian denominations at least officially teach that it is wrong to have any type of sexual activity outside of marriage yet it is clear that the vast majority of Americans (including the vast of Christians) are not “pure” at the time of their marriages despite all the abstinence propaganda. My point here is that for many, their biological instincts will trump their ideological commitments.

    Another area where religion is blamed is that of discrimination against gays and lesbians. It is certainly true that the Christian religion and others teach that homosexual acts are wrong and are not permitted. The thing is that the extreme Fred Phelps type bigotry is the kind of things that seems to be (at least from experience) more correlated with lack of intelligence, education etc. much more than religious affiliation though religious affiliation. I have known people in my life who clearly would have nothing to do with any religion yet are far more bigoted than the majority of Christians. Here is an example of someone talking about gays from an evangelical Christian perspective http://www.bridges-across.org/ba/campolo.htm . I would say Tony Campolo is far more tolerant than the majority of males in general, at least in the United States, though that may be changing. I think general cultural attitudes also play a big role in people’s views of homosexuality, I recall in one of my psychology textbooks that while homosexuality was removed as a mental disorder by the American Psychological Association in 1973, the Japanese equivalent did not remove it until 1995. The reason that’s significant is that Japan is far more secular than the United States and more than Western Europe in fact, as well as being somewhat more high tech as well so it certainly was not a matter of religion itself. Another interesting fact from the same book was a graph that showed the rates of unwed pregnancies in the US, the UK and Japan from the 50’s to the 90’s. While both the US and the Uk showed a relatively steady increase, the line for Japan was a horizontal line at a low level on the graph. That’s all interesting considering the differences in religiosity between the three countries.

  2. I agree with just about everything you said, except that I do think discouragement of critical thinking is a core idea of the classical Christian doctrines as outlined in the New Testament, and the anti-intellectualism inherent in that is not compatible with a flourishing civilization, much less a libertarian one. Religion is a human creation, and it reflects all of the many aspects of human nature.

    I think the extreme homophobia we see among some subsets of the Christian fundamentalist subculture in the US is more cultural than religious in nature. I encountered quite a bit of that when I was in that subculture in the 70s, but in the decades since I’ve also encountered evangelical Christians from other parts of the US and overseas who share the same basic theological/spiritual beliefs, but don’t hold to the same selective hostility towards homosexuals. It seems to be mostly cultural and in some cases regional.

    Asian societies are often more secular than the US, and many Asian religions lack belief in things like reward and punishment in an afterlife or even an anthropomorphic god-figure. Yet Asian societies are also rather conservative compared to the West in the sense of emphasizing the primacy of the collective or the individual, “family values” (for instance, the Chinese emphasis on filial piety or the traditions of ancestor worship in Asian folk religion), patriarchy, duty, honor, obedience to authority and so forth. So it makes sense their sexual mores would be more conservative as well. But I think their sexual conservatism is of a different kind that what is found among Christian societies. The Asians stress the role of the individual in relation to the family, and personal responsibility and obligation. For instance, the duty of the daughter to not be a burden on her family with unwanted children or the duty of a man to produce children to continue his family line. But Christian sexual conservatism stems from the idea that sexual pleasure itself is a taboo, or that sexuality is inherently sacred because of its reproductive function. So it’s two different kinds of sexual conservatism we’re talking about here.

  3. Buddhism was conceived as and always intended to be a martial creed, it never made any pretensions to be anything else until it was adopted by the bourgeois Orientalists.

    Great comment Jared, I totally agree. Religion does get a bum rap and gets blamed for many of the evils which are inherent in the state and human nature. Religion is meant to constrain and counter the worst tendencies of the individual and the state but is all too often co-opted and misused to justify or retroactively blamed for the excesses of both. A simplistic comparison could be made to firearms. Guns are tools which could be and should be used for positive actions, providing food and defending oneself. But like most things they are misused and abused for aggressive and exploitive purposes and yet these inanimate objects, these fabricated tools are blamed for the evil ends which bad people put them to. This is a result of mans tendency to scapegoat. Guns don’t kill people, people (using guns) kill people applies to religions don’t kill people, assholes (using religion) kill people.

    I would remind people that atheistic Communists have killed more people in the last century than have died in all religious wars in recorded history. People will always find reasons justify their inhumanity if religion was ever eliminated it would only become worse. Religion may be misused to justify violence but if it was gone new justifications would be found and we would be without religions (often ignored) pacifying potential.

    I am inclined to think that when we do ultimately revert back to our natural default state of tribalism that it would be a good thing to have a trans-tribal council of pious men, something akin to the prechristian College of Druids which can function to settle intertribal disputes. If one tribes Gothi can meet with another tribes Rabbi on equal terms with mutual respect to try to settle a dispute a lot of violence could be avoided. Chiefs don’t call for the wardrums until after the medicine man has run out of options.

    The idea of Asian sexual conservatism is a Western myth but to the extent which it does exist it is more a result of Confucius’ teachings than The Buddha’s.

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