It may not be too much of a stretch to say that after Michael Jerryson no one will view Buddhism in the same way. Others have written about Buddhist violence and war, of course, but Jerryson brought it to the public’s attention in a way that couldn’t be ignored.
When he died last week after more than two years of battling ALS (Lou Gehrig’s dreaded neurological disease), Jerryson left a rich body of literature, including nine books. Among them were his unique author’s works, including Buddhist fury, and If you meet the Buddha on the road (quoting the famous verse attributed to a Chinese Buddhist monk which ends with the words “kill him”). He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, and the Oxford Handbook on Religion and Violence (co-edited with Margo Kitts and myself).
The cover of a book Jerryson and I co-edited Buddhist war depicts a young monk holding a handgun [see story image]. When this image appeared accompanying a book review in London Times Literary Supplement, readers were outraged. “How could that be? “Several readers asked to know” since as everyone knows, Buddhism is the religion of non-violence? “
After Jerryson, everyone now knows that Buddhism is like every other religious tradition on the planet. He is able to inspire great moments of insight and foment peace and tolerance. But it can also accompany the furious attacks by Buddhists, spurred on by militant monks, to slaughter Muslims in Myanmar, set their homes on fire and burn innocent victims alive. It is also Buddhism.
By writing about such matters, Jerryson makes it clear that he is not here to destroy tradition. Rather the opposite. Because Jerryson lived and worked with Buddhists in Mongolia, Thailand and elsewhere, he felt a kinship with the Buddhist community and an admiration for its tradition.
But Jerryson was also a scholar with enormous intellectual curiosity. As he explained in a 2010 essay in Religious dispatches (later republished in Utne Reader), “Armed monks: discovering Buddhist violence“He first came to Thailand to study Buddhist pacifism and social activism. But when violence broke out in southern Thailand between Muslims and Buddhists, he wanted to go see what the monks were doing there. down to bring peace.
What he found was quite different. Buddhist monks in the region took little interest in peace. Most of the time, they wanted to defend themselves and their Buddhist community, and many were armed to do so.
What Michael discovered, as he explained in his DR test, was “not that Buddhists are angry and violent people. But rather than the Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes a penchant for violence. “
Since then we have seen an abundance of other examples of Buddhists acting with violence, that is, acting like everyone else can. Some of the most virulent are the Buddhist riots against Muslims in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, where vitriolic monks have added to the climate of ethnic hatred and anger.
It was this violent side of Buddhism that both troubled and interested Jerryson. This troubled him as he admired tradition and cherished its attitudes towards peace and tolerance. But as a scholar he was also fascinated by the diversity within the Buddhist community and the extent to which ideas and images from the religious tradition could be used in quite hostile ways.
Jerryson then began to ruminate on why we are surprised to find out about this dark side of Buddhism. Why would it be counterintuitive that Buddhist societies, like all other societies in the world, regardless of their religious affiliation, have sometimes embraced violence?
This attitude we have towards Buddhism, explained Jerryson, tells us more about ourselves than it does about the Buddhist tradition. There has been an image of peaceful and thoughtful Buddhism that has been commercialized in the West, often by itinerant Buddhist teachers. Not that this image is incorrect – there is a lot in Buddhism to be admired and shared with people who love peace everywhere.
This is not the whole story, however. And for a scholar of Buddhism, what is left out in the popular image is as interesting as what is included in it.
Jerryson’s interest in Buddhist violence came at a critical time in world history. Increasingly, violence and religion have been associated in movements of xenophobic religious nationalism, not only in Buddhist societies but around the world.
For this reason, Jerryson began to focus more broadly on religion and violence in the world. He saw the phenomenon of Buddhist political violence in a global context. His most recent work has focused on comparative studies, including editing a comprehensive two-volume set of essays on Religious Violence Today: Faith and Conflict in the Modern World.
Jerryson had sketched out a new book project he wanted to write. This would expand on some of the concepts I developed in Terror in the mind of God, and try to identify critical occasions in which religion and violence merge in a way that results in real attacks, not just symbolic expressions.
One of the central ideas of this new book was to be the concept of âsacred emergencies,â moments of existential fear that cause devotees to believe that the world as they know it is in ultimate danger. This leads to faith-based claims of power and control that are often expressed with violence.
Michael was never able to write this book. But he wrote a detailed essay summarizing the main ideas. Shortly before his death, he sent me the manuscript of this article, which will now be published in the Journal of religion and violence, a journal of which he co-edited for some time, along with his frequent collaborator, Margo Kitts.
Kitts and I co-edited a Festschrift for Jerryson, Buddhist violence and religious authority, it will be published soon. It includes articles by academics exploring a wide range of Jerryson’s concepts, showing their relevance to further scholarship. Some of the essays in this volume are featured in a special issue of the Journal of Buddhist Studies devoted to the work of Jerryson. Fortunately, he was able to see these manuscripts and comment on them before his death.
In our introduction to his Festschrift, Kitts and I conclude by saying that these essays show that his fertile ideas will continue to nourish the field for a long time to come. Indeed, along with Jerryson’s body of influential work as a whole, they constitute a lasting legacy and a continuing contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and public life.
You can read all of Michael Jerryson’s RD contributions here. – ed.