Author Response to Commenters on Buddhism and Violence Article

The response to my first RD article has been robust. I’d expected that—discussions on this topic tend to draw a great deal of energy. Violence touches so many lives.

The criticism is a bit surprising, though. A few commenters have noted that Asaram Bapu, a prominent Hindu guru I quoted, is not Buddhist. One commenter alleges that this makes the article “dishonest.”

I can accept the implied critique that my writing was unclear. I’ll keep on striving to improve on that front. But I value honesty a great deal, and I disagree with the remark. Rather I find the claim curious because I’m not sure why commenters assumed that the quoted teacher should be a Buddhist. 

I wonder whether that insistence would extend across other stories. For example, what if the article were on Buddhist perspectives on marriage equality in America, and it began by quoting a prominent religious opponent of gay marriage—say, Tony Perkins—and went on to contrast what the Buddha or a Buddhist teacher said about marriage and homosexuality.

Would this imply that Tony Perkins is a Buddhist, or that he aims to speak for all Buddhists? I don’t think so. (I don’t think anyone could even credibly claim he speaks for all Christians.) Rather, it would indicate he is conspicuous in the current discourse, and the contrast between his ideas and a Buddhist perspective could be illuminating—particularly if Buddhist philosophy appeared, at first glance, to agree with Perkins.

The Jyoti Singh Pandey case was a watershed event that impacted all of India, including the Buddhist minority. (The original article mentions protests in McLeod Ganj, a settlement of Buddhists from Tibet, and residents of Buddhist landmark town Bodh Gaya.) Bapu represented one perspective in the national debate on responses to violence.

Notably, secular figures also made similar victim-blaming comments. They don’t represent Hinduism or Buddhism, but certainly influence the issue of violence in Indian society. Indeed, if the demand is to quote a prominent public figure who can credibly speak for Buddhists on the topic of violence in India today, then only the Dalai Lama would suffice. (For the curious, his comments are here.)

Another commenter noted “the Kakacupama Sutta was not a teaching given to young laywomen.” This is true. Buddhism’s historical emphasis on monasticism means many Buddhist teachers often didn’t intend to give teachings to laypeople at all. Many Buddhist practitioners today grapple with extracting insights from texts written in contexts highly dissimilar to our own circumstances. The same may be true of every religion, but the recent arrival of Buddhism to the West has made this phenomenon more pronounced for us.

In the end, this uncertainty is reminiscent of violence itself. The complexity of conflict can make every position ethically imperfect and psychologically uncomfortable. As the Dalai Lama has noted, dialogue is often the best response. It’s gratifying to see commenters do that here at RD. Thank you.

msophnewman@gmail.com'

M. Sophia Newman, MPH, is a freelance writer living in Dhaka, Bangladesh. See more of her writing at msophianewman.com.