Buddhist Exceptionalism


An article came out recently in the Washington Post called Aaron Alexis was no Buddhist. It is instructional in some ways for the general population and that’s the good part, but in other ways it contains a dangerous undercurrent. Some of that is captured here:

Buddhism differs from these religions, and this should be made crystal clear to the average citizen.

Even to become a Buddhist, one must formally take the pancha sila vow, sometimes known as pansil or the “Five Precepts,” in which one agrees to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants.  So, was Alexis, who is also reported to have been a “hard-core drinker,” a gun-lover with previous gun violence arrests, and a murderous killer, a Buddhist?  In name only, based on these facts.  And based solely on the observance of the basic Buddhist tenets described above, and other such tenets as metta, or loving-kindness, Alexis cannot accurately be defined as a Buddhist.  This is because, simply put, Buddhist is who Buddhism does.  However, that having been said, Alexis was still a sentient being who suffered his own demons, and for this reason, real Buddhists will extend to him, or to his memory, the compassion and loving kindness that all beings deserve.

There is a certain disingenuousness in the latter paragraph. What the author is doing is using this man’s social and psychological instability to bolster Buddhist exceptionalist ego and then paying lip service to some Buddhist principles.

I can’t even ennumerate the number of times I’ve seen this kind of thing happen in all sorts of contexts. “Real Buddhists”? Really? This sort of prescriptive discourse is meant to enforce conformity of thought and action. Not that thinking about killing people is a particularly useful thought, but had Alexis been able to communicate those thoughts to someone in the sangha somewhere, without fear of being labeled “Not a Real Buddhist” and marginalized as the author is doing in that article,  perhaps his tragic actions and his tragic end could have been avoided.

I wrote a comment on Facebook when I posted it:

Buddhist exceptionalism. Of course. "We" are special and "real" Buddhists don’t do bad things. That kind of delusion is pretty dangerous because the more you buy into a purity cult (which exists in potential in any ideology, religious or otherwise) the more others are demonized, excluded or shunned. The vanguard approach (an elite core who uphold doctrinal/ideological purity) is all about exclusion and elitism, comparison, competition and measuring one’s self against others.

There’s much more that could be said about this and I’ll get to it (and lots of related stuff) more in upcoming months but for now the kind of rhetoric that appears in the article about Buddhists and their “special” understanding of the universe is as divisive as what is put out by any other ideological group that seeks to set itself above others.


18 comments on “Buddhist Exceptionalism

  1. I wonder if Buddhists ever will see the paradox of this “real Buddhist” thing? In fact in this line of reasoning, who is a “real Buddhist” is always only ascertainable in hindsight. Because as long as one holds the “Five Precepts” one was and one is a “real Buddhist”, as soon as one breaks them one was and is a Buddhist “in name only”. What one was is only discernable after the fact (btw, his logically leads to the conclusion that one never know what one is).

    I wonder if “real Buddhists” will ever come to recognize that paradox (which has been discussed in european philosophy since some time).

    May I also hint to the fact that “bolstering of Buddhist exceptionalist ego” is a function of the principle of sufficient buddhism” as Glenn Wallis illustrates it in Cruel Theorie | Sublime Practice (cf. for example p. 138). Wallis gives the full tool set to analysis this x-buddhist subject. I think it is time to at least look into his work and to try to see if it is helpful in getting a clear handle on these problems “real Buddhists” have.

  2. Hi Matthias. Yes I take your point. It is fraught with all kinds of doublethink. I also see this tied to other Buddhist ideas as well in certain schools such as with the concept of the Bodhisattva as being suspended in an existential liminality of perpetual potential. Potential, in itself certainly does not exist because, similar to what you say, it only manifests in hindsight, though it is a future-projected hindsight. Something of a double fantasy. There are probably quite a few Buddhist concepts that have similar structures.

  3. “Not that thinking about killing people is a particularly useful thought, but had Alexis been able to communicate those thoughts to someone in the sangha somewhere, without fear of being labeled “Not a Real Buddhist” and marginalized as the author is doing in that article, perhaps his tragic actions and his tragic end could have been avoided.”

    And you are saying this without irony in an article criticising *other* Buddhists for “exceptionalism”? Are we criticising or advocating exceptionalism?

    I think one has to have get very abstract and fuzzy not to have sympathy with a religious group in the USA distancing itself from a psychotic mass murderer in this day and age.

    It’s unfair to single Buddhists out. Humans are social animals but we are tribal as well. I see nothing distinctive or unique about Buddhist group defining narratives – most of the same narratives can be found in soccer supporters in the UK. Seems like the problems you identify (if indeed they are bugs and not features, which is moot IMO) are generalised human behaviour. Buddhists are human, humans are tribal. No amount of liberal angst is going to change that.

    I’m starting to see it as a good thing that more traditionally minded Buddhists reject me as “not a real Buddhist”. I’m not their victim. I never wanted to be part of those tribes anyway. It’s my views that threaten them, not the other way around.

    • You’ve got quite an army of straw men in your comment and I don’t have all day to address them so I’ll go to point form.
      1. I’ve not excluded anyone from the Buddhist “big tent” to cop Tricycle’s phrase.
      2. Implication that I do not have sympathy for all the victims is just wrong.
      3. I’m talking about the Buddhist context. Of course there’s a bigger picture and of course it is applicable elsewhere. I happen to be writing about this specific situation.
      4. Humans also have cognitive abilities that can and often do preclude tribalist behavior.
      5. No one’s asking anyone to deny their human behavior. The question is privileging this tribalism over other human behaviors and the advancing of practices of aversion.
      6. “liberal angst” Please. Pick another not so subtle ad hominem.
      7. I don’t know what your personal circumstances are. If you have been rejected by some Buddhist groups using the “not a real Buddhist” excuse that is precisely what I am talking about here. I do not reject you on those grounds nor do I deny that you are a Buddhist.
      8. All views are threatening to somebody. It’s something we’ve all got to come to terms with.

      Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Good to see you digging into this here (and in the future), NellaLou. W.W.Quinn took some heat a while back for writing about the ‘pure’, ‘free of culture’ Buddhism he practiced and a few of us tried to figure out who exactly he was, to no avail.

    In any case, he isn’t even the biggest fish (imho) to fry in this discussion, as the editor-in-chief of two major Buddhist magazines made much the same assertion (which I discussed in a post last week – link below). Reading comments there and in other stories around the web is taxing. Yes, Buddhists (East and West) really think they’re special, unique, exceptional even.

    The trick for me is communicating the falsehood of that in a way that they will listen to and understand; which is one of my major faults with the Speculative-NB folks. Hegemonic obfuscatory verbiage prevents the message from extending beyond a special in-group.


    • I like the SNB folks. They’ve got spunk!

      As an occasional purveyor of obfuscatory verbiage myself it’s awkward for me to comment on that, but I will do it anyways. I do think there is a real place for high theory and that kind of abstraction. I personally love it and in some utopian context would do nothing but. I have found though that attempting to do such leaves me somewhat disconnected from a lot of people I’d like to be connected with (aka the rest of humanity outside the ivory tower for whatever reason).

      I also think there’s a place for some to try to popularize those ideas as well so that they become available to everyone. That kind of bridging is not very easy. I try it sometimes but clearly can’t always manage it as well as I would like.

      As for the editors and other gatekeepers of “country club” Buddhism I consider this phrase more to my liking:

      ” I do not speak truth to power. Power knows. I speak Truth to PEOPLE”.

      The only “truth” I have to speak is my own. If one tests it an accepts it that’s fine and if not that’s also fine. Kalamas and all that.



  5. Marvin McLeod of Shambala Sun made a similar assertion re Alexis not being a Buddhist.: http://shambhalasun.com/sunspace/?p=34855 “The media needs to get its terms straight: he was not a “Buddhist terrorist,” he was probably not a terrorist at all, and when it comes down to it, he wasn’t a Buddhist, no matter what he called himself. If he really were, he couldn’t have done this.”

    Ridiculous. It is simple, really. Anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist is one. Anyone who says he likes ice cream is an ice-cream lover. It is not for me to determine what is going on with someone else’s heart, mind or taste buds.

    In the Kalama sutta there is Buddha’s so-called charter of free inquiry. Buddhism is not a dogmatic religion. Buddhism, especially, should not be drawing red lines on who’s in and who is out.


    • ” Anyone who self-identifies as a Buddhist is one. ”

      Yes. This.

      The author of the WaPo article put in this qualifier,
      “Even to become a Buddhist, one must formally take the pancha sila vow, sometimes known as pansil or the “Five Precepts,” in which one agrees to refrain from killing, stealing, lying, sexual misconduct, and using intoxicants.”

      Formality is formality.

      Someone on Twitter the other day wrote this.

      “Some of you may have already taken refuge in your heart, many years ago; in that case, this is just a formality” ~ Khenpos at refuge ceremony

      I have heard that many times, including from teachers.

      There’s a huge difference between the ideals expressed in vows, which are utopian in nature and represent ideals to strive towards and becoming instantly those ideals as if it’s some kind of magic thing. Just saying the words doesn’t cut it. It really has to be a refuge in the heart. Using the utterance (or not) of some words in some specific context is another method of exclusion, as is the Buddhist name given to people as if it’s some kind of secret password to get you into the club, the listing of one’s prominent teachers within the hearing range of everyone else, bylines in publications, accolades by the sangha….on and on…

      Man I’ve got to make a big list of those….

      So damn much spiritual materialism.

  6. When “Buddhist” becomes a convenient description for only those aspects of our lives which exemplify the precepts, I think we forget what it means to pursue the way. If we were free of all obscurations, there would be no longer be any reason to be Buddhist. To identify as Buddhists, it doesn’t mean we are virtuous, it means we are obscured. The only question is how much, how often, and in how many different ways.

  7. Pingback: the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by | 108zenbooks

  8. I am jumping up and down on Danny Fisher’s bones these day for a couple of posts he has written which I see as Buddhist Exceptionalism, albeit used for friendly-seeming Liberal purposes, but it is elitist and offensive (I think), nonetheless.

    In his more-recent post [ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dannyfisher/2013/10/five-buddhist-lessons-in-light-of-the-us-government-shutdown/ ], Danny uses Buddhism principles as dogma to justify his reading of the government shutdown. His post is written to seem to be even-handed and fair-minded, but — to my mind — he jumbles facts and does not try to come to an understanding of “the other side.” And how “Buddhist” could that be?

    Further, whether he does so overtly or less intentionally, he inserts some jabs at the conservatives even while he earnestly derides this very conduct. An example comes from his parenthetical remarks here:. “We … need to aspire to change hearts and minds, and not demonize others (as frustrating as they can be) because of where they are now. Everyone has Buddhanature, (hard as it may sometimes be to see), and that should not be forgotten as we work to relieve suffering.]

    I write this comment to make the point that Buddhist Exceptionalism [or, its close cousin, Buddhist Elitism] comes not just from rather-obviously pompous blokes, but is a more-insidious infection.

    In a post from about a year-and-a-half ago, Danny complains bitterly about a case where four Marines were filmed urinating on Afghan corpses. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/dannyfisher/2012/01/about-that-video-of-u-s-marines-urinating-on-corpses-in-afghanistan/

    Leaving aside the fact that Danny doesn’t understand this is merely a political contretemps, and not really an international crisis, I would hope a Buddhist would at least see that urinating on a carcass does as little damage to the carcass as is done to the urine.

    The Marines’ crime is not that they urinated on some Taliban soldiers, it is that they GOT FILMED urinating on some Taliban soldiers. Anyone who has seen Restrepo, the documentary about our soldiers in Afghanistan, would appreciate the extremely difficult position our frontline soldiers in Afghanistan are in, getting shot at, watching friends die, and killing “the enemy.”

    Yes, the film caused a dust-up and political kabuki theatre. As he is a Buddhist I would have hoped that Danny would see more deeply into what was REALLY going on; and with the comfy life he was given would have been alert not to so easily be against the soldiers.

    Danny wrote, “Lastly, it’s important to say that people should not ‘shut up’ about this, and we need as many informed perspectives as possible. If we are going to curb and completely stop incidents like this, among our own soldiers and globally, we have to be able to talk about it.”

    Yes, indeed! To Buddhists Everywhere: Stand up in opposition to urination!!!

    • To apply the doctrine of self inquiry revealed in the dharma given to the Kalamas, when I look within for the rightness of this action, I see urinating on corpses as an expression of hate which cannot profit the doer. That said, war itself is an insane proposition so to divvy it up into lesser or greater atrocities as a point of ethical discourse appears rather fruitless. Still I see nothing wrong wtih standing up in oppostion to acts which we feel are wrong. The elimination of defilements (kleshas) is essential in practice, and in my opinion it is fruitful to discuss the ethics and morality of politics, because as citizens of the United States, who are empowered to vote, if we say nothing, and do nothing, we share the bad karma of our nation’s political actions. Where I feel the problem lies in point of practice is that we cannot be the minder of others’ individual spiritual progress, but must use our discernment of what others do to first and foremost govern our own thoughts and actions. And I again I refer to the Kalamas:

      “Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are bad; these things are blamable; these things are censured by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to harm and ill,’ abandon them. “

      • In war, there are gradations of atrocities, more so than anywhere. The problem is that having “rules of war” makes war not just possible but a certainty to recur.

        I am sorry to say that your comment, Neti-Neti Yeti, is mostly foolishness. War is a field of horror but also an intense place where all manner of things occur, including radical acts of compassion and fortitude. For you to write it off as insane and thus all the same is ignorant.

        • Good Tom, as I have understood your dharma, there is virtue in war because it allows compassion to flower. I have realized it differently. From the perspective of the Buddhadharma, there is Buddha nature in all things, as revealed in the Mahayana “Nirvana” sutra. Thus, as there is war in the universe there is also Buddha nature (and compassion) on the battlefield. But since compassion is a universal quality of Buddha, it is not dependent upon conditions such as warfare. Therefore your dharma, as I understand it, ignores the most basic teachings of ahimsa (non-violence), and the universal application of kindliness (maitri), as expressions of Buddha nature, and represents a wrong view. As the Blessed One said: “Monks, ignorance is the leader in the attainment of unskillful qualities, followed by lack of conscience and lack of concern. In an unknowledgeable person, immersed in ignorance, wrong view arises.”

        • Neti-Neti,

          Your understanding is wrongheaded. I am certainly not an advocate for war. It’s like this: I recognize that toothaches happen. That doesn’t make me an advocate for toothaches.

          I would never say that “there is virtue in war.” I am only rebutting your comment asserting that war is wholly of one piece when you wrote “war itself is an insane proposition so to divvy it up into lesser or greater atrocities as a point of ethical discourse appears rather fruitless.”

          Certainly, there should be “ethical discourse” regarding matters of war; silly for you to suggest there shouldn’t be. I would suggest for you a tour of the Holocaust Museum and then a screening of “Schindler’s List.”

          Your latest comment makes no sense, in large part because you are choosing to misinterpret what I wrote. And then you seem pretty much to revert to throwing flowers around and using words as if they have no meaning. I submit that a person should utilize Buddhism with constant “reality checks” such to have a foundation in reality. THEN read the Buddhadharma from that foundation.. Buddha is often depicted seated on the ground, touching the ground with one hand. I think that that was his reality check.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s