Sunday, March 15, 2015

Buddhist Blasphemism? Blasphemism in Buddhism?

Recently the topic of blasphemy, or, let us call, “blasphemism,” in Buddhism became an issue. Many scholars commented on it and I must admit most comments seemed to remain at the periphery of the topic. The first question is whether there is at all what one might call “blasphemy” in Buddhism? What would be the terms used in Buddhist sources that might indicate blasphemy? What types of blasphemy may be found? Most importantly, what does it mean in Buddhism to commit a blasphemy? And do/should a Buddhist react to (or deal with) blasphemy? Is there such a thing as Anti-Blasphemy law/rule/ regulation in Buddhism? These issues are perhaps important so as to raise awareness among Buddhist intellectuals and spiritual leaders so that they can impart a clear understanding of blasphemy and educate Buddhists not to think and behave in a way that would make one a “Buddhist Taliban” or a “Buddhist Ayatollah.” Let us look at the word itself. The word is said to come from Latin blasphemia and Greek blasphēmía. It is said to mean not just any kind of “slander” but “the action or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things.” Some of the words listed as synonyms or quasi-synonyms of “blasphemy” are “profanity, profaneness, sacrilege, irreligiousness, irreverence, taking the Lord’s name in vain, swearing, curse, cursing, impiety, impiousness, ungodliness, unholiness, desecration, disrespect; formal imprecation; archaic execration,” and “reverence” is said to be its antonym. The first important question for me is if there is “blasphemy” (in any sense of the word) in Buddhism? The answer should be certainly in the affirmative. In a narrow sense, “blasphemy” in Buddhism may be defined as “mental, verbal, or physical actions involving depreciation/deprecation, desecration, defamation, or, destruction of the Buddha, Dharma, and Saṃgha and of anything or anyone that represents them.” In a broader sense, “blasphemy” in Buddhism may be defined as “mental, verbal, or physical actions involving depreciation/deprecation, desecration, defamation, or destruction of anyone or anything that is worthy of respect.” The greatest difficulty in this regard is whether the idea or concept of “worthy of respect” would differ from person to person; from culture to culture; from religion to religion; and so on, or whether we can we talk of a universally valid idea and standard of respect. I would personally think that while the mode or manner of expressing one’s respect may differ from culture to culture, “respect” (in the sense of “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements”) is something universal. This would be true also with “disrespect.” The matter then seems to be not about whether there is an idea, concept, or norm, of “respect” or “disrespect” in any given cultural tradition or religion but rather about how does or should one deal with “respect” and “disrespect” (especially of what one considers to be “sacred” or “holy”). From a Buddhist philosophical perspective, so long as there are beings with intellectual-emotional defilements (kleśa: nyon mongs pa)—such as ignorance, hatred, and desire—there are bound to be “blasphemies.” Just as our “blasphemies” are symptoms of our unchecked intellectual-emotional defilements so too are our negative or destructive reactions to blasphemies symptoms of our unrestrained intellectual-emotional defilements. Both of these are caused by one’s obsessive attachment (or addiction) to one’s own religion (and ultimately to oneself) and excessive aversion against anything that is associated with others, and both addiction and aversion are rooted in ignorance/confusion/disorientation. To be sure, all human beings, defined by the notion of “I” or “self” and “mine,” are prone to addiction/passion and detestation. We tend to be pleased if other people praise, for examples, us and our religion. We tend to be hurt and angry if other people blame, for examples, us and our religion. That may be natural. But the question is how should we react if other people ostracize and criticize, for example, us and our religion. In this regard, it is surprising that we tend to be infantile and immature and think and act like spoiled children. I cannot speak for other religions, but I feel that Buddhist religion in this regard is quite mature, that is, even when Buddhists (who fail to see the very purpose of Buddhist religion being under the sway of intellectual-emotional defilements) may misbehave or think and act adharmically. Of course, admittedly the ideal Buddhist teachings and the real Buddhists may not and cannot always conform. Buddhist teachings prescribe several ways of combatting one’s own intellectual-emotional defilements. Reacting negatively or destructively to an act of (perceived) blasphemy (e.g. wanting and seeking to kill someone on its account) would be seen in Buddhism as becoming a slave of one’s own intellectual-emotional defilements. A Buddhist should be able to cope with any form of “blasphemy” against Buddhism by considering many arguments. First, it would be completely preposterous to assume that everyone will respect the Three Jewels. Everyone should but not everyone will. Second, as a mature Buddhist, one should be able do deal with both respect and disrespect of any kind, or with all “eight worldly concerns.” Third, by generating hatred (or by giving in to hatred) towards those who seek to destroy, desecrate, or depreciate the Three Jewels and their representations, a Buddhist would stoop to the same level as those who perpetrate those acts of disrespect. Fourth, those who perpetrate those acts of disrespect should be objects of one’s compassion but not of one’s hatred. One is primarily responsible for sowing one’s “positive” or “negative” seeds and for reaping one’s desirable or undesirable “fruits.” People are free to sow any kind of seeds in the Three Jewels that are fertile “fields” (kṣetra: zhing). They are free to respect or disrespect the Three Jewels and their representations. If they respect these, they do so for their own benefit. If they disrespect these, they do so at their own risks. By disrespecting or insulting, for example, the Buddha, one would accrue “negative earnings” or “detrimental resources” (pāpa: sdig pa) so that one brings about one’s own destruction, downfall, pain, or suffering. By respecting, for example, the Buddha, one would accrue “positive earnings” or “beneficial resources” (puṇya: bsod nams) so that one brings about one’s own wellbeing and happiness. Fifth, those who perpetrate those acts of blasphemy against the Three Jewels and their representations are de facto one’s wholesome teachers insofar as they teach one to practice moderation and toleration. They teach one to be more humane in the face of inhumanity; tolerance in the face of intolerance. Sixth, instead of being concerned about other people committing blasphemy, one should be more concerned that one does not commit oneself not just blasphemies but any negative deeds especially those five infinitely heinous deeds and five that resemble them. Charity begins at home, so it is said. Here it would more appropriate to say: Responsibility begins with self-responsibility! There is, however, one difficulty in Mahāyāna Buddhism. Is it not permissible to exterminate those who seek to exterminate Buddhism or those seek to annihilate countless sentient (or human) beings? Perhaps only precariously and conditionally! If a bodhisattva is capable of doing so, that is, if he is able to do so without being tainted by intellectual-emotional defilements, he would be principally permitted to do so, but how can one and who can guarantee that such an act comes to be beneficial? In the light of inadequate insight and compassion, such an endeavor, though theoretically permissible, would hardly be feasible or implementable. If a bodhisattva decides to go ahead and should it turn to be beneficial or disastrous, he should bear full responsibility for his motivation and action. Sometimes, a bodhisattva may be willing to take full responsibility of his motivation and action and if necessary even be prepared to go to the deepest hell!

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