Tessa Bartholomeusz’s IN DEFENSE OF DHARMA, 2002

Preface by Tessa Bartholomeusz, with Basic Book Details & Table of Contents followed by two book reviews

IN DEFENSE Tessa (1)

I. PREFACE

The “Sinhala Army Song” graces the final pages of the 1999 commemorative volume of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sri Lankan Army (Sri Lanka Army, 50 Years On: 1949–1999, 1999, p. 918). According to this publication, the song was composed by a Buddhist monk, Rambukkana Siddhartha Thero. In view of the identity and vocation of its author and inasmuch as it reflects many of the themes that I explore in the pages that follow, it is worth reproducing the song in full here (in an English translation by C. R. de Silva and myself):

Circled by the Ocean, this is my Motherland,

My land, like a carpet of pearls,

Let’s protect her forever, serve her forever, serving by sacrificing our lives,

Let’s protect her.

Let’s dedicate ourselves to the task of leading all the people of Lanka

who are like gems and gold.

Let us, by sacrificing our lives, create a world of flowers

for the sons and daughters born in our Motherland.

Linked by love of the [Buddhist] religion and protected by the Motherland,

brave soldiers you should go hand in hand.

Let us put our shoulders together to make a golden world filled with peace

and linked together by friendship.

Let us look after the village settlements, picking flowers from the tank beds.

Let us all protect this land of pearls and gold where cool breezes blow.

Even a cursory reading of the “Army Song” must leave us with the perhaps uncomfortable realization that, in the Sri Lankan Buddhist context, not all monks oppose defensive war. Nor can we assume from the start that religion and warfare are in every circumstance antithetical. Though the poem was published in 1999, the relationship between the defense of one’s country and Buddhism is not new: it allowed for a Buddhist monk, as “chaplain,” to be inducted into the army in the early 1950s, when the Venerable Dr Induruwe Pannatissa Thero was commissioned as an army captain (“A Bikkhu for the army to ensure good morals and principles,” Dinamina (Sinhala), 27 February 1951). Yet, in my 1998 interview with the very helpful Brigadier Sunil Tennekoon (who, according to the Army’s commemorative volume “coordinated and directed” the “Army Song”), he insisted that the army has little, if any, relationship with Buddhism (I discovered the song long after returning to the USA and so was not able to ask him about it directly); in fact, he was adamant on this point. How to reconcile the way in which Sri Lankan Buddhism is regularly presented with the way in which Buddhism is actually experienced “on the ground,” so to speak, is the raison d’être of this book – especially as the war in Sri Lanka is so often justified by resort to a religious idiom.

The war in Sri Lanka has captured much attention in recent years and is often the subject of news reports, magazine articles, and documentaries. It has even been fictionalized by none other than the highly acclaimed and award-winning Sri Lankan-born novelist Michael Ondaatje in his book  Anil’s Ghost (2000). Mybook is similarly inspired by recent events in Sri Lanka and is based on research that I conducted in Sri Lanka during the summer months of 1997 and 1998, funded by an American Institute for Sri Lankan Studies Fellowship and a Florida State University Faculty Development Grant. I am deeply indebted to my research assistants Ms Asha Abeyasekera and Ms Yashodara Sarachchandara, both of whom arranged meetings for me with prominent Buddhist monks and laity, politicians and scholars; they also conducted a good many of the interviews. Moreover, they patiently read through dusty documents at the Sri Lankan National Archives and the Sri Lankan National Library that were critical for my work. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the staff of those libraries, as well as to the administrators of the Young Men’s Buddhist Association, Colombo, who have granted me many privileges over the past decade, including the use of their library. I am also very grateful to Kumari Jayawardena of the Social Scientists Association, Colombo, for sponsoring my research and for her abiding friendship and hospitality. My family in Sri Lanka, as always, were very helpful and gracious during my stays in Colombo; I shall never be able to thank them properly for their kindness. And no- one compares to Ms Sutami Ratnavale, who has provided me with the best home away from home during my recent research periods in Colombo; she is a great friend. I would like also to acknowledge Mark Froehlich, who painstakingly labored over the bibliography, and Vinod Rubins, who assisted me during the final editing process, both of whom are my students at Florida State University.

I have benefited immensely from the careful readings by many scholars of portions of this work. John Kelsay, my colleague in the Department of Religion at Florida State University, whose own work on Islam and war has inspired me, read through various drafts of the entire book and made very valuable suggestions; he also granted me release time from teaching in the fall of 1998 that allowed me to begin writing the book. Aline Kalbian, also at Florida State University, read through Chapter 1; her imprint is on its pages. Other colleagues elsewhere, including Charles Hallisey, John Kemper, Chandra R. de Silva, and Jonathan Walters, all read Chapter 1 and offered suggestions for improvement; Donald Lopez read and commented upon Chapters 1–3. I am very grateful to each of them for their time and thoughtful remarks, and I have tried to address as many of their queries as possible without compromising what I believe to be the thesis of the book – namely, that Buddhists, not unlike other religious peoples, justify defensive war if certainconditions are met.

During my 1997 and 1998 field studies in Sri Lanka, my discussions with Buddhists, many of whom gave very generously of their time, helped me to articulate the arguments that I present in this book. Though I often met with much resistance, I also met with much more encouragement and support than I could ever have expected, even from Buddhist monks who disagreed with me. Because

I had previously interviewed many Sri Lankans, including members of the Sangha ,for my book Women under the Bo Tree (1994), and also for some of the essays that I wrote for a volume I edited with Chandra R. de Silva,  Buddhist Fundamentalism and Minority Identities in Sri Lanka (1998), I had already developed strong relationships with Sri Lankans that allowed me to ask tough questions of some notable Buddhists. I think that many monks, and many politicians, in particular, respected my tenacity; I certainly came to respect their resolve, even though I shall never be able to endorse the points of view of certain among them.

A book such as this, which challenges our assumptions about Buddhism, widely held to be the most pacific of all the world’s religions, is not easy to write. Though I shall defer full discussion of the problems associated with such a study until the middle of Chapter 1, I should like to say here that writing about war and Buddhism in the context of Sri Lanka, where some sixty thousand people since 1983 have lost their lives in ethnic strife, is very depressing, heart-wrenching, and frustrating. The atrocity of the war was brought home to me recently as I read through a publication of the Sri Lankan Army that commemorates its fiftieth anniversary, particularly because over two hundred of its pages are devoted to listing the names of the 10,688 soldiers who have died since 1983 (as of June 1999, its publication date) in the government’s war against the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam); the list does not even include those who are officially “missing in action,” nor those serving in the Sri Lankan Air Force and Navy who have lost their lives. It is my hope that, by tackling the subject of Buddhism and war, I may be able to contribute something to our understanding of how Sri Lankans have justified their resort to violence and why.

There have been many stumbling blocks in the Sri Lankan peace process, which always seems crippled, and in the writing of this book. Yet, I am cautiously optimistic about Sri Lanka’s future, particularly because in early 2000 the two major political parties in Sri Lanka agreed to work together for a resolution to the protracted civil war. Anyone who has visited Sri Lanka, or who, like me, has had the great fortune to conduct research there, knows that Sri Lankans are resilient; like others who have known war, Sri Lankans have learned to carry on despite the difficulties in their country. And though, as is obvious, most Sri Lankans are not on the battlefield actually engaging in war, most lives nevertheless are torn asunder by the crisis in this tiny island nation. During most of the writing of this book, while countless bombs took countless lives in Sri Lanka, I encountered difficulties of my own, though they do not compare to the hardships of many whom we shall meet in the following pages. I have been succored by my family, both in the USA and abroad, and particularly by my parents. In conclusion, I wish also to mention the affection of my dear friends, some of whom are colleagues, who cheerfully and optimistically steered me through those difficulties, especially Fran, Larry, Cathy, David, Aline, Bob, John, Kathleen, and Daniel, all of Tallahassee; there are many, many others, who live elsewhere, including my childhood friends, and C.R., Daya, Meena, Anne S., and Vijay, who, though far away, are always in some sense nearby. I am grateful to Dr James E. Martin, Tallahassee, who is just what a physician should be. And words fail to express my gratitude to Dr Daylene Ripley of Shands Hospital, Gainesville. Above all, I would like to acknowledge Jeff Tatum, who knows far more about Buddhism than he ever bargained for and who makes life fun, even though he’s  a very fine scholar. With admiration and love I dedicate this book to him.

II. In Defense of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka

Front Cover
Tessa J. Bartholomeusz …..  Psychology Press, 2002 History209 pages … ISBN 0-7007-1682-3 pbk
This is the first book to examine war and violence in Sri Lanka through the lens of cross-cultural studies on just-war tradition and theory. In a study that is textual, historical and anthropological, it is argued that the ongoing Sinhala-Tamil conflict is in actual practice often justified by a resort to religious stories that allow for war when Buddhism is in peril. Though Buddhism is commonly assumed to be a religion that never allows for war, this study suggests otherwise, thereby bringing Buddhism into the ethical dialogue on religion and war. Without a realistic consideration of just-war thinking in contemporary Sri Lanka, it will remain impossible to understand the power of religion there to create both peace and war.

 III.  REVIEW by Eric Sean Nelson, University of Toledo, in Journal of Military Ethics, 2003, (2(3)) pp.253-255

The thesis that you should cultivate compassion, respect, and reverence for all life does not seem promising for justifying war. The argument that it is better to suffer than to do harm is even less encouraging. Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike thus often assume that there is no legitimate Buddhist justification of war much less a Buddhist tradition of just-war theory. To use violence is to betray the Buddha’s teachings.

There are noticeable exceptions to the standard interpretation of the Buddha’s first precept demanding non-violence/non-harm (ahimsa ). Theravada monks and laity have been implicated in persecution and violence in the Sri Lankan ethnic conflict and civil war between a series of democratically elected governments, supported by the mostly Buddhist Sinhalese, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) terrorist organization based in the mostly non-Buddhist Tamil minority.

Bartholomeusz’s provocative book explores the arguments for and against the justice of war in the Buddhist tradition of Sri Lanka. She comprehensively investigates the possible legitimation of violence in the Pali Canon (the foundational texts of Theravada Buddhism), in postcanonical narratives such as the Mahavamsa (which describe the Buddha’s legendary Sri Lankan visits and the victories of Buddhist warrior kings), and in contemporary discussions. This interdisciplinary work analyzes Buddhist ideas in relation to western just war and ethical theory. She contends that Buddhism not only has a rigorous tradition of nonviolence and loving kindness but also a long history of thinking about war from which the assertion of the possible justice or the unfortunate necessity of war can emerge. Her thesis is that although Buddhism privileges non-violence, it can be used to justify war if certain conditions are met.

Emphasizing the diversity within Sri Lankan Buddhism, she examines three approaches to the question of war. First, she depicts a position which she calls Buddhist fundamentalism. This extreme view maintains that the war must conclude with the defeat of the LTTE and the restoration of a unified Sinhalese Buddhist Sri Lanka. The argument for a holy race war generally follows a three-step legitimation of anti-Tamil violence: (1) Sinhala and Buddhist identity constitute a unity that is radically distinct from the Dravidian Hindu Tamil interlopers from South India; (2) Sri Lanka is the island of dharma (dhammadwipa) ordained by the Buddha himself (by his three apocryphal visits) for Buddhism such that the whole island is the Buddha’s sacred relic and the loss of its unity would destroy this legacy; (3) the justice of a defensive war for dharma justifies the preservation of Sri Lanka in its unity as a majority Sinhalese Buddhist nation through military action against the Tamils, identified with the invading damila of the medieval epics, thus associating the present situation with past threats.

The second view argues for the justice of undertaking defensive military action against insurgencies, even if the insurgents have some legitimate grievances. The war is interpreted as the defense of the territorial integrity and peace of the nation, as a proper function of the modern secular state, and/or the defense of the nation’s endangered Buddhist identity. Appeals have been made to international law and its account of the justice and limits of war and to Buddhist principles.

There are a number of strategies used by Sri Lankans to answer the question of how Buddhism can justify war. Some stress the unfortunate necessity of military action despite its negative karmic consequences. Others, perhaps motivated by the need for a more inspirational message, suggest that righteous war (one with a morally legitimate goal and fought in an honorable fashion) has meritorious karmic consequences. The author argues that both strategies presuppose that the precept of nonviolence is a prima facie rather than an absolute duty. This means that nonviolence is one’s first duty but that it can be overridden under certain circumstances as a last resort.

Theravadin ethics is sometimes seen as placing absolute value on compassion and avoiding harm. Yet, in practice, Sri Lankan Buddhists reason with a plurality of context-sensitive prima facie duties. The precept against violence is not absolute but can be overridden by more pressing obligations such as defense of one’s parents or the dharma itself. The Buddha’s account of skillful means suggests, according to this reading, the use of practical judgement or a sense of appropriateness in applying moral principles to any situation. Although the Buddha’s precepts are unconditional, conflicts between precepts require contextual reasoning that employs utilitarian (maximizing compassion and minimizing suffering) and virtue ethical (the effects actions have on one’s condition) considerations. Thus, Buddhist ethical reasoning is used to justify violence for the sake of nonviolence and the government’s ‘war for peace’. The justification of war accordingly requires the fulfilment of certain conditions which Bartholomeusz compares in detail with Christian and western just war criteria.

Finally, some Buddhists reject all violence as an impediment to nibbana and promote the peace process. They argue for the deontological status of Buddhist precepts and the emotional and karmic consequences of all action: violence no matter how righteous always produces more violence and warriors no matter how virtuous suffer the consequences of war. ‘Conquest begets enmity; the conquered live in misery; the peaceful live happily having renounced conquest and defeat’ (Dammapada , verse 201).

***  ****

IV. Annewieke Vroom, of Free University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, in Journal of Buddhist Ethics,

The relevance of the theme discussed in Tessa Bartholomeusz’s book, In Defense of Dharma: Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka, hardly needs explanation. The author explores the religious dimension of the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka, where since the first (1983) bombing of the Kandy temple holding the Buddha’s Tooth Relic, national symbol of ‘Buddhist Sri Lanka’, 60,000 people have lost their lives. (p. xxi) Bartholomeusz researches the Buddhist side of the conflict, and shows that many Sinhalese Buddhists active in the public domain have promoted a “Buddhist fundamentalism” (p. 34) that has contributed to the polarization of religious (and ethnic) groups in Sri Lanka. One wonders how Buddhists relate such an attitude to the supposedly fundamental Buddhist spirit of ahimsa or non-violence. Bartholomeusz’s book provides an abundance of material on exactly this question: how have Sri Lankan Buddhists “justified their resort to violence and why?” (p. xxi)

Religion and state: In Chapter 1, “Narrative, Ethics and War,” Bartholomeusz follows
Stanley Hauerwas’s approach to ethics, focusing on the power of religious
narratives to shape individual moral decisions. She finds his approach
highly appropriate for Sri Lanka, where she finds religious stories take a
prominent place in public debate due to a type of “Buddhist secularism”
that interweaves religion and politics. (pp. 5-7) In Sri Lanka, it is the task of
politicians to actively “foster religion”—in this case, mainly the religion to
which the 70 percent majority belongs: Buddhism. (pp. 6-7) While the
democratic socialist republic of Sri Lanka holds to the principle of freedom
of religion, its most recent constitution still grants Buddhism “the foremost
place” among religions. This is symbolicaly underlined when after elections
politicians ask blessings of all religions—after extensively visiting the
Buddhist Dalada (Tooth Relic) shrine first. That mixing religion and politics
holds consequences for minority religions is no surprise. However, one
might hold certain hope in the case where the majority religion concerned
is a (stil highly monastic) Buddhism. Focusing on the approach to just-war,
Bartholomeusz argues that in so far as there is tension between the sangha
and the state, it is the sangha that is more supportive of violence. (p. 8).
An example of this dates back twenty-five years before the Dalada
bombing, when then prime minister Bandaranaike proposed a policy
somewhat accomodating to the Tamil minority. Earlier, he had campaigned
on a “Sinhala-only” policy backed by the Buddhist leadership. His shift
“enraged many monks and laity alike.” (p. 13) and three years later the
prime minister was kiled by an angry monk, “ostensibly for complying with
some Tamil demands.” (p. 13) In a more recent (1997) example of sanghastate
conflict, Prime Minister Kumaratunga reportedly sneered in reaction
to an influential pro-war monk (Sobitha) that “if the monks want war, she
would send them to the warfront.” (p. 150) (This irritation is even more
remarkable when we consider this prime minister herself speaks of”war for
peace”).

Nationalist stories: In chapter two, “Just-war Thinking in Texts and Contexts,”
Bartholomeusz describes what narratives are used to justify Buddhist
violence. The major culprit here is the post-canonical scripture the
Mahavamsa (Great History). In this text kings and forefathers defend the
country from “external influences” after the Buddha himself makes three
magical trips to Sri Lanka, which he prepares to be the dharmadwipa (island
of the dharma). “[T]he Mahavamsa occupies the same position in Sinhala
society that the Ramayana holds in Indian society.” Bartholomeusz quotes
Steven Kemper on the importance of this text: “As children, they hear
shreds and patches of the tradition recited, they see temple paintings
evoking it, or they folow cartoons in Sinhala newspapers representing the
lives of righteous kings.” (pp. 20-21) Thus Bartholomeusz portrays the
background of the Sri Lankan Buddhist perception of the island: stories that
present the island as destined to be Buddhist.
Realy Buddhist: Sri Lankan Buddhist religio-nationalism is supported by the monks who
are understood to have the task to safeguard the “Dharma-Island” from
threat by “foreign influences” such as the Tamils. In support of this
nationalist worldview, many texts are quoted that paint the history of the
island as one of heroic warrior kings who (violently) “defend” the country
from damilas (now read as Tamils) (chapter three: “Dharma yuddhaya and
Dharma Warriors in Sri Lanka”). Even though most of the quoted texts are
post-canonical, Bartholomeusz stresses as in earlier publications that it is
naive to explain dharma yuddhaya (religious/dharma-war) thinking as a
post-Theravāda development, a Sri Lankan aberration, or for other reasons
not “truly Buddhist.” (p. 66) She locates the seeds for violence in canonical
Buddhist texts such as the Dhammapada, that are “replete with military metaphors.”
Furthermore, just-war thought is not merely on the periphery of Sri
Lankan Buddhism. Rather, “the idea of war, endorsed by monks and
legitimated by the vamsas, has become part of the fabric of contemporary
Buddhism in Sri Lanka.” As a vivid witness to this, Bartholomeusz describes
a sangha of political monks that nowadays take their refuge vows in “rata,
jatiya, agama or country, nation/race, religion,” instead of the traditional
and more al-inclusive Buddha, Dhamma, and Sangha. (p. 69)
The religio-nationalistic discourse is strengthened by the physical
presence of relics in Sri Lanka, the holiness of which raise the island to an
almost divine status, so much that “the island is the functional equivalent of
a relic of use, and … thus serves as the living presence of the Buddha” (p.
144), who due to the account of his magical visits is believed to have elected
exactly these 65,610 square kilometers of land in the Indian Ocean for his
religion to thrive.
Pacifism itself legitimizing violence: The kind of Buddhism that the Sinhalese discourse hopes to uphold
Bartholomeusz notes to be radically pacifist (chapter four: “Buddhism,
Pacifism, War, and Ethical orientations”). Bartholomeusz argues the Sri
Lankan Buddhist belief in pacifism itself is a major factor contributing to a
fundamentalist attitude among Buddhists in Sri Lanka. For, according to
Bartholomeusz, Sri Lankan Buddhists have come to believe that pacifism
(based on ahimsa) is a unique possession of the Buddhist religion. The dogma
of the unique Buddhist pacifism is sustained by drawing the contrast to
Christianity and (to a lesser extent) Islam, which are demonized as violent
religions. (pp. 103, 110). (It seems to Hinduism there is a more ambiguous
attitude (cf. p. 74 vs. pp. 2, 165)). English-speaking Buddhists worldwide in
their publications have “created an ideological community that accepted
the superiority of Buddhism to Chrisianity.” (p. 106). This “construction of a
pacific Buddhism” creates the idea of an utopia of a peaceful non-violent
society dependent on Buddhism alone. (p. 110) From this assumption, the
crucial consequence is drawn that violence is allowed for in cases where the
peace-bringing Buddhist religion is perceived to be threatened, i.e., within
Sri Lanka itself. Also from here it is a smal step to the cal for assimilation of
minority groups to Buddhism. (p. 115)
Interestingly, Bartholomeusz refers to an interview by Tibetan Buddhist
scholar Robert Thurman with the Dalai Lama, who in response to a question
on Sri Lanka says: “[I]f the situation was such that there was only one
learned lama or genuine practitioner alive, a person whose death would
cause the whole of Tibet to lose al hope of keeping its Buddhist way of life,
then it is conceivable that in order to protect that one person it might be
justified for one or ten enemies to be eliminated—if there was no other way.
I could justify violence only in this extreme case, to save the last living
knowledge of Buddhism itself.” (p. 29) Of course, in Sri Lanka we are not at
al speaking about saving the last living knowledge of Buddhism, but rather
about saving the myth of Sri Lanka as a fuly-Buddhist island.
In chapter five, “Sri Lankan Buddhism and Just-war Thinking
Revisited,” once more Bartholomeusz cals to the stage examples from the
bewildering array of monks, politicians, journalists, scientists, poets,
songwriters, laypeople and sangha council members who justify or even
glorify (p. 91) violence, evoking variations on the theme of Sri Lanka as a
sacred Buddhist island.
Evaluation:  Barthomoleusz draws a Barthomoleusz draws a lively image of what is actualy going on the
Buddhist side of the ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka. At the same time, the
plentitude and diversity of people and texts cited leave it difficult to
distinguish the main lines of thought and to assess to what extent the
quoted materials are representative of Sri Lankan Buddhism as a whole.
Bartholomeusz suggests that the material quoted in In Defense of Dharma:
Just-war Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka is quite representative of Sri Lankan
Buddhism—to the frustration of smaller and more minority-friendly Buddhist groups.

The author herself, who sadly died before she could finish the book,
found her book repetitive in parts and thought there were places where the
argument stil needed refinement (p. xv)—a justified self-critique. One can,
however, appreciate the book for its vast amount of material, for its
associative crisscrossing through Sri Lankas past and present, and for its
comparisons, observations and connections. The many connections
Bartholomeusz makes in her book wil need to be systematised by other
researchers. One hopes Bartholomeusz’s overwhelming amount of evidence
pointing to the centrality of violence in Sri Lankan Buddhism wil serve as
an incentive to do so, and perhaps also create a new awareness among those
Sinhalese Buddhists that, as Bartholomeusz contends, have thus far been
unable to see the extent and danger of their pro-violence attitudes.

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