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Yes, There Are Bad Buddhists

August 6, 2012

In American polls (by the Pew Forum, for one), Buddhists are routinely reported as well liked by members of other religions.  Most people would trust a Buddhist and prefer to have one as their neighbor more than any other religious group, including atheists.  (Ironic, no?)  Buddhists are perceived as being peaceful, calm, lovey-dovey types.  In the United States, Buddhist have largely striven to live up to those standards, sometimes to the criticism of their own, such as the Against the Stream Sangha, whose words now seem to bear a sort of prophecy:

Having started as a handful of committed spiritual revolutionaries in Northern California, named The Dharma Punx, the movement has grown to thousands of engaged compassionate Buddhists around the world. This movement away from traditional Buddhism and toward an alternative expression of modern anti-establishment rebellion is a necessary one. Much of traditional Buddhism, in both the northern (Mahayana) and southern (Theravada) is in an awful state of degradation, corruption and delusion. We now have a chance to leave behind the problematic issues of the sexist, classist and racist politics that have corrupted the wonderful non-oppressive teachings of the Buddha. – Against the Stream Website

I don’t know enough to judge the “awful state of degradation, corruption and delusion” (and I would be careful about throwing stones) but I do know that Buddhist groups, both here and abroad have been featured in the news lately for bad behavior.  Horrible, violent, murderous behavior that makes my heart clench and weep to hear of it from any source, then to clench again to learn that Buddhists are at the center of it.

The bad behavior on American soil ended with the death of Ian Thorson this year in the Arizona desert. He and his wife, Kristy McNally, were expelled from a three year retreat at Diamond Mountain “University” led by “Geshe” Michael Roach.  They decided (in a perhaps unbalanced state of mind) to continue the retreat on their own and Thorson subsequently died of dehydration and starvation on an Arizona mountainside.  Justin Whitaker at American Buddhist Perspective has been keeping track of the story, which has now been covered by the New York Times and CNN.

It brings to light many questions about spiritual authority, ethical oversight, and personal responsibility?  Is Michael Roach a legitimate Buddhist teacher or a cult leader?  Is he authorized by any higher spiritual authority to be teaching these practices to Americans?  Were his students spiritually prepared to enter into such practices?  Do Thorson and McNally bear personal responsibility for unwisely deciding to live in the desert alone, in winter, without permanent shelter and very little means of obtaining food and water?  Should there be consequences to Diamond Mountain?

I do believe that Michael Roach and every other human being at Diamond Mountain bears some responsibility for this tragedy.  When the decision to expel the two was make, Roach and DM should have ensured they were transported to a safe location, that they had somewhere to go and some means of getting there.  Those who knew, and some clearly did, that Thorson and McNally had decided to continue their “retreat” on the mountainside should have tried to dissuade them from it and, failing that, should have notified the Arizona authorities.  Living in the open, in winter, in a desert, without secure access to food and water is a fool’s errand.  In the words of mothers everywhere: “They ought to have known better.”

I would not grant Michael Roach the title of Buddhist teacher, whatever his training, nor Diamond Mountain the title of university, no matter its charter.  Their behavior has not lived up to their words.  I believe Justin Whitaker is right to call for discussions of some kind of oversight council for Western sanghas.  Although, I’m not certain I would ultimately endorse the creation of any such body, I think now is a good time to talk about it.

This widely circulated photograph (origin unknown) is purportedly of a Burmese Buddhist Monk at a recent protest to advocated the continual denial or citizenship and human rights to the Muslim minority or “Rohingya.”

Perhaps more disturbing than this incident, is what’s currently happening in Burma (Myanmar).  Buddhists, including monks, are leading the persecution and murder of the Muslim minority in the province of Rakhine on the border of Bangladesh.  This latest outbreak was supposedly prompted by violence against Buddhists by Muslims, but that does not excuse the subsequent crackdown by security forces and the vigilante response of the civilian and monastic populations.  Monks have been found distributing anti-Muslim rhetoric which only fuels the violence.  Nor is this the first time Buddhists in Southeast Asia have behaved badly.

Andrew Lam at New American Media makes the full nuances of the story clear, pointing to Buddhists’ use of power and authority for both good and bad in Southeast Asia. (Originally discovered at Wildmind Buddhist Meditation Blog.)  Buddhists, it seems, are just as subject to the adage of power corrupting than any other.  For all of the good engaged Buddhism has done in recent decades, it is not without its downside.

My friend and teacher, Rev. Danny Fisher, has also been following this story at his blog.  Danny has been a long-time campaigner for democracy in Burma and a “Burma Champion” and I know news of the recent violence has hit him hard.  He has shared An Open Letter from the Buddhist Community on Islamophobia, originally composed by Joshua Eaton, which I encourage everyone to read and sign, as hundreds of others already have.  If you have any contact with Burmese people, whether in or out of Burma, please use those contacts to urge an end to this violence and the reconciliation of the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority.  I know it’s not that simple.  It’s never that simple.  But it has to start somewhere.  Please help urge that start.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who harbor such thoughts do not still their hatred.

“He abused me, he struck me, he overpowered me, he robbed me.” Those who do not harbor such thoughts still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.

There are those who do not realize that one day we all must die. But those who do realize this settle their quarrels.

Dhammapada, verses 3-6, translated by Acharya Buddharakkhita,
available on Access to Insight

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Kai Yu permalink
    May 12, 2016 4:23 pm

    People look for a way to peace, some come with anger, others find hurdles too high, others use the way of the warrior to protect what they do believe in. Who decides how one should get to the way of peace while they overcome other driving emotions? Will you go to Burma to fight for for peace? How will you do it. Will you sacrifice yourself as a person who truly believes in peace at a price, or hope those beside you protect you from harm before you are killed? There is much more to living and peace and the future. But I am glad you are happy putting those down who are fighting for their lives. for peace. Your piece saddens me in so many ways.

    • Mark Carlton permalink
      October 4, 2016 6:47 am

      Hey kai yu
      who is fighting for life??
      is it the rohingya muslims or those buddhist monks??
      think before you speak
      by the way, what did the rohingya muslims do which put the lives of those monks in danger?
      u claim that buddhism is the most peaceful region in the world but it does not seems to be peaceful.
      one side these monks are killing and selling tigers, other side they are killing rohingya muslims.

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