Those who have followed my varied opinions over the years are probably aware that an obscure book, Theological Incorrectness: Why Religious People Believe What They Shouldn’t, is one of my favorites in terms of understanding the human condition. Though the book’s core focus is a cognitive anthropological treatment of religion, it also has a nice introduction contrasting the normal form of analysis in mainstream American cultural anthropology to the naturalistic paradigm. Books like these are very useful for overly intellectual types (religious and irreligious) who naturally reduce religion to explicit propositions, often relating to theology. Cognitive anthropology suggests that in fact the basic fundamentals of the religious impulse have very little to do the explicit cultural trappings which are so well known in the organized religions which arose after the Axial Age. Often these complex systems of belief and practice are centered around philosophical or revealed truths, and statements of confession which exhibit logical structures, at least superficially. Though it is probably a misleading analogy, many think of DNA as the blueprint for the form and function of organisms. In a similar fashion it is common to see religious texts and the opinions of seminal thinkers as the blueprint for a given religion. The empirical reality is that this view is upside down. Traits which we think of as seminal to religion, such as profession of specific elements of faith, are relatively recent cultural innovations on top of a far more robust and deep primal layering of religion as a psychological and cultural phenomena.
If we kept that in mind then op-eds with titles like this would be far less surprising, Sri Lanka’s Violent Buddhists:
Extremist Buddhist monks are confounding; they directly contradict a canonically nonviolent religion often perceived as apolitical. Like radical monks in Thailand and Myanmar, Sri Lankan hard-liners reserve special ire for Muslims. The B.B.S. and its counterparts have incited mobs to demolish mosques. A June speech by the B.B.S. chief Galagodaththe Gnanasara triggered anti-Muslim rioting in Sri Lanka’s southern villages; thugs burned homes, four people were killed and at least 80 were injured. But instead of arresting Mr. Gnanasara, the president simply urged “all parties concerned to act in restraint.”
Reading the canonical Gospels would anyone have assumed that Christianity would serve as the foundation for militant orders such as the Knights Templar? The idea of Buddhism as a peculiarly pacific religion I think makes sense more in light of the biases of its introduction in the West (some of the same goes for Hinduism, which is often reduced to Vedanta, with other streams of practice and thought being termed “debased”). Oda Nobunaga’s suppression of militarized Buddhist orders in medieval Japan is just one illustration how the religion was turned toward forceful ends over the past few thousand years. I am broadly open to Peter Turchin’s thesis that “higher religious” that have emerged in the last 2,500 years are cultural adaptations to multi-ethnic empires where a new moral and ethical basis served to unit elites and ameliorate tensions introduced by social stratification. But it is also clear that these ideological systems of thought which took upon religious garb have also made accommodations with the temporal powers that be (e.g., the orthodox Christian “vice-reagent of God upon earth” and the Dharmic cakravartin).
In the particular historical context of Therevada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Theological Incorrectness is useful because the author did his field work in that nation, and shows how in practice there is little difference between Buddhists and Hindus in relation to implicit beliefs and rituals. This despite the high social tension between the two groups, and the canonical chasm between Buddhism and Hinduism. It is also important to know that Buddhism in Sri Lanka went through a 19th century Renaissance, where input from Southeast Asian Theravada and Western sympathizers revitalized the religion and reshaped its self-image among the elites.* The extent of its decline and the reversal of its fortunes is evident in the fact that prominent leaders from the lowland Sinhala gentry converted from Protestant Christianity to Buddhism in the 20th century as a nationalist statement (while Sri Lankan Catholicism has withstood the test of time, most of the Protestant converts of the colonial era have been reabsorbed into Buddhism among the Sinhala). This exhibition of “muscular Buddhism”, and its connection to Sinhala nationalism, is nothing new or out of the ordinary, but has roots that go back many generations.
* Some have argued that the elite self-perception of Theravada Buddhists in terms of their religion being a philosophy as opposed to religion is due in part to Western influence in the 19th century. This being part of the “Protestanization of Buddhism,” transforming a ritualized national cult into a confessional set of creeds.