Religions’ Ethical Double Standard

My wife is a pretend Buddhist. She claims to be Buddhist, but she doesn’t spend her days memorizing passages from any of the sutras. She has other things to do.

She’s a pretend Buddhist, but she has no need for silly slogans like “BUDDHA Bigger than me” or the equivalent.

She shows respect and offers prayers at the various places of worship she visits, but doesn’t know the names of the different Buddhist figures enshrined at Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai and Laotian temples.

She thought all Buddhist priests were to abstain from meat, marriage, cigarettes and alcohol. Visits to Japanese Buddhist temples have changed this view. Despite this, she still maintains Buddhism is about compassion, not killing. Compassionate killing in Buddhism is a contradiction in terms.

Most people assume Buddhism is intimately associated with peace. And because of this, some wonder if Buddhism is superior to other world religions, especially in the wake of the killings at the office of a satirical newspaper in Paris.

There is indeed a close connection between Buddhism and peace, as the first precept in Buddhism prohibits killing or causing harm. But like other faiths, there is a darker, violent side to the religion as well.

Why is this? Because people have a darker, violent side that is expressed through and satisfied in religion. The religions aren’t violent; people are. And, in some cases, the Buddha is too.

Upayakausalya (Skill in Means) Sutra tells the story of a past life of the Buddha, where he is captain of a boat carrying 500 merchants. In a dream one night, deities inform him that one of the passengers is a bandit who is planning to kill all the merchants.

The Buddha considers three possible actions: Do nothing and allow the bandit to kill everyone; inform the merchants, who would then kill the bandit themselves and incur evil karma for their murder as a result, or kill the bandit himself. The Buddha ponders this ethical dilemma for several days, and eventually decides to murder the bandit himself. The sutra does not interpret this as retribution for evil, but as an act of compassion that saves the bandit from the horrible karmic consequences of mass murder, and allows the bandit to be reborn in heaven.

A distinction is made between allowing the merchants to kill the bandit in anger, which would result in their rebirth in hell, and the Buddha’s murder with “great compassion” and “skillful means,” which saves everyone.

Compassion and proper understanding are central to achieving Buddhahood, and the tale of the Buddha, the bandit and the merchants underscores this. Under certain circumstances, violence may be performed by spiritually adept beings, but not by ordinary beings. This is an expression (misinterpretation?) of the Buddhist theory of two truths: conventional truth, which frames a reality filled with diverse and distinctive things and beings, and ultimate truth, the view that there are no distinctive things or beings, but an underlying interconnectedness between everything, including the two truths. Enlightened beings or people with proper understanding of the higher truth transcend the ordinary ethical norms that characterize conventional levels of morality.

In short, violence is justifiable when performed by the Buddhas and Buddhists, but condemned when committed by non-Buddhists. This, in part, explains Buddhist complicity in wars throughout Asian history.

Indeed, in recent years, Buddhist monks have incited violence and attacked Muslims in Burma/Myanmar under the guise of peace.

There is an ethical double standard here.

Behavior that is normally condemned — particularly when committed by people of other religious or ethnic groups — is justified when performed by people belonging to one’s own group.

The ethical double standard applies to other religions too. “Thou shalt not kill” in the Ten Commandments prohibits the killing of God’s people. The murder of other people — including children and infants — is acceptable. In fact, in certain books of the Bible God demands it (1 Samuel 15, Deuteronomy 7). One easily can find examples in Islam, too (Surah 2:191-193, Surah 8:12).

The messy interplay between the purity of religious ideals on the one hand and the sometimes violent field of social practice on the other is not easy to manage, and every world religion struggles with this.

My wife denies Buddhists can practice their faith and be violent. In this way, she is like my Muslim friends who claim the Quran is misread when used to justify violence. Or like my Christian friends who claim Jesus only preached tolerance and family values.

A closer look at their religious traditions would reveal otherwise.

There is no hypocrisy here, though. When it comes to committing violent acts or hateful behavior, decent people of religious faith are either unaware of the violent and appalling passages in their scriptural tradition or know them but — thankfully — reinterpret them or reject them outright. Decent people are still peaceful and tolerant, even when strands within their religious traditions encourage them to be otherwise.

Decent people have little need for catchy slogans or religious propaganda. Upstanding people don’t need to be Buddhist — or Christian, Muslim, Hindu or atheist, for that matter. They don’t need labels at all.

My wife respects the faith of others (though some do not respect hers in return). She is a decent person and a pretend Buddhist.

The world should be filled with religious pretenders. In my view, the world already is.