Why Michael Jerryson Mattered

This essay was posted in Religion Dispatches with the title, “After Michael Jerryson Nobody Will Ever Look at Buddhism the Same”

It is perhaps not too much of an exaggeration to say that after Michael Jerryson no one will ever look at Buddhism the same way. Others have written about Buddhist violence and warfare, of course, but Jerryson brought it to public attention in a way that could not be ignored.

When he died this last week after over two years of struggling with ALS (the dreaded neurological Lou Gehrigs’s disease), Jerryson left a rich corpus of writings, including nine books. Among them were his solely authored works, including Buddhist Fury, and If You Meet the Buddha on the Road (quoting the famous line attributed to a Chinese Buddhist monk that ends with the words, “kill him”). He also edited the Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, and the Oxford Handbook of Religion and Violence (co-edited with Margo Kitts and myself).

The cover of a book that Jerryson and I co-edited on Buddhist Warfare portrayed a young monk holding a handgun. When this picture appeared accompanying a review of the book in the London Times Literary Supplement, readers were outraged. “How could this be?” several readers demanded to know, “since as everyone knows Buddhism is the religion of nonviolence?”

After Jerryson everyone now knows that Buddhism is like every other religious tradition on the planet. It is capable of inspiring great moments of insight and fomenting peace and toleration. But it can also accompany the angry attacks of Buddhists, goaded on by activist monks, in slaughtering Muslims in Myanmar, tsetting their houses on fire and burning the innocent victims alive. This too is Buddhism.

In writing about such matters, Jerryson makes clear that he is not out to trash the tradition. Quite the opposite. Because Jerryson has 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 an 2010 essay in Religion Dispatches, “Monks with Guns: Discovering Buddhist Violence,” initially he 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 and see what the monks were doing there to bring about peace.

What he discovered was quite different. The Buddhist monks in the region had little interest in peace-making. Mostly they wanted to defend themselves and their Buddhist community, and many were armed in order to do so.

What Michael discovered, as he explained in his Religion Dispatches essay, was “not that Buddhists are angry, violent people. But rather that Buddhists are people, and thus share the same human spectrum of emotions, which includes the penchant for violence.”

Since then we have seen an abundance of other examples of Buddhists acting violently—which is to say acting the way that all people can do. 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 hate and ethnic anger.

It was this violent side of Buddhism that both troubled and interested Jerryson. It troubled him since he admired the tradition and cherished its attitudes towards peace and tolerance. But as a scholar he was also fascinated with the diversity within the Buddhist community and the degree to which ideas and images from the religious tradition could be employed in quite hostile ways.

Jerryson then began to ruminate over why we are surprised at discovering this dark side of Buddhism. Why should it be counterintuitive that Buddhist societies, just like all other societies around the world regardless of religious affiliation, have at times embraced violence?

This attitude of ours towards Buddhism, Jerryson reasoned, tells us more about ourselves than about the Buddhist tradition. There has been an image of pacific and reflective Buddhism that has been marketed in the West, often by itinerant Buddhist teachers. Not that this image is incorrect—there is much in Buddhism to admire and to share with peace-loving people everywhere.

It is not, however, the whole story. And for a scholar of Buddhism, what is left out of the popular image is as interesting as what is included.

Jerryson’s interest in Buddhist violence has come at a critical time in global history. Increasingly violence and religion have been associated together in movements of xenophobic religious nationalism, not just in Buddhist societies but around the world.

For this reason Jerryson began to turn his attention more broadly to religion and violence around the world. He saw the phenomenon of Buddhist political violence within a global framework. His more recent work has focused on comparative studies, including editing a two-volume comprehensive set of essays on Religious Violence Today: Faith and Conflict in the Modern World.

Jerryson had outlined a new book project that he wanted to write. It would expand on some of the concepts that I have developed in Terror in the Mind of God, and try to identify the critical occasions in which religion and violence become fused in a way that results in real attacks, not just symbolic expressions.

One of the central ideas in this new book was to be the concept of “sacred emergencies,” moments of existential fear that drive the faithful into thinking that the world as they know it is in ultimate danger. This leads to faith-driven assertions of power and control that are often expressed violently.

Michael was never able to write that book. But he did write an extensive essay encapsuling the major ideas. Shortly before his death he sent me the manuscript of this paper, which will now be published in the Journal of Religion and Violence, a journal which for a time he was co-editor, along with his frequent collaborator, Margo Kitts.

Kitts and I have co-edited a Festschrift for Jerryson, Buddhist Violence and Religious Authority, that is soon to be published. It includes articles by scholars exploring a wide range of Jerryson’s concepts, showing their relevance to continuing scholarship. Some of the essays from that volume are featured in a special issue of the Buddhist Studies Review devoted to Jerryson’s work. 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 some time to come. Indeed they, along with the whole corpus of Jerryson’s influential work, provide an enduring legacy, a continuing contribution to our understanding of the complex relationship between religion and public life.

Letter to an Anti-Vaxxer

[The following letter was actually sent to someone I know who refuses to be vaccinated thinking it’s not sufficiently safe.]

Dear friend-

Yes, I found your admission that you are hesitating taking any of the available COVID-19 vaccines to be troubling. There are several reasons for this.

One is that I work in the field of higher education where we respect expertise. All of us in universities are experts in something, but none of us are experts in everything. So we rely on the knowledge of those who have devoted their intellectual resources to an area in which we seek information.

Yet we know that not all experts in the same field agree. That’s the nature of the scientific community, it thrives on discussion and counter-evidence. For that reason we seldom trust the outliers in the field who may take a contrary stand to the great majority of their colleagues. We rely on the preponderance of the evidence if it points in one direction, and we trust in the overwhelming consensus of experts in a field. This is abundantly the case in the reliability of the current COVID vaccines available.

But there are two other reasons that I have. These are more personal.

One is my connection with India. I lived there for a time and am in almost daily contact with friends there. In recent months India has gone through a tsunami of COVID cases related to the new Delta variant. It is more transmissible and lethal than other forms, and it has a tendency to strike younger victims, not just the elderly that has been the case with early forms of the disease.

In recent weeks I have heard of the tragic deaths of several people that I have known, healthy colleagues in the fullness of life, who were struck down with an evil disease that aims for the lungs, leaving the victims almost literally choking to death.

In all of these cases, they had tried in advance to get access to a vaccine to protect them. Alas, there is a severe shortage and long waiting lines. And for many, including these colleagues, the chance for a vaccine has come too late.

I feel helpless hearing this dark news about people I knew and admired. To know that they died for the lack of a vaccine is troubling. Even more disturbing is to know that otherwise sensible Americans are taking a cavalier attitude towards taking the vaccine. I feel that if they don’t want it, for God’s sake send their vaccines to India where people are literally dying to receive them.

The other reason is even more personal. It is literally close to home.

You see I’m married to a woman who had a viral disease in her childhood—polio—and is still suffering from the effects. It was called infantile paralysis because it frequently struck young people, cruelly, leaving them crippled or gasping for breath. In my wife’s case, for a lifetime she has had limited mobility and frequent pains. What a blessing it was when vaccines were developed to combat this horrible and crippling disease!

But that didn’t happen immediately. I’m old enough to remember that when the first polio vaccines came out there were deniers and those who hesitated. But ultimately they were won over, and now polio has been virtually eradicated from the face of the earth.

Without the overwhelming acceptance of the vaccine, polio would not have been defeated. If a large percentage of the population goes unvaccinated everyone suffers, since the virus remains in society, and has the opportunity to mutate into even more virulent strands.

So vaccination is not just for personal protection. It a matter of social responsibility.

Of course you are free to make your own decisions, that’s the wonderful thing about being in a free society. But decisions have consequences. Not only for yourself, but for others, as well.



Rumsfeld’s Legacy in Iraq

 The only time I met Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush,  was in a meeting in Washington where he briefly appeared. He was cocksure and jovial as always.
   It was one of Rumsfeld’s signature features that he never apologized for anything. And quite likely he never regretted anything he did, including the most devastating.
  The invasion and occupation of Iraq was one of those devastations. Perhaps worse than the invasion was the haphazard and irresponsible occupation.
  This was one of Rumsfeld’s baby. Apparently he and his staff had virtually no preparation for what would happen after the fall of Saddam. I think the assumption was that it was a secular government that could run on its own.
  In fact the country collapsed from chaos to anarchy to vicious ethnic rivalry. The emergence of ISIS was a product of this.
  The US policies in Iraq, largely crafted by Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney, helped to create this chaos. I know this because Ambassador Barbara Bodine, who was teaching with me at UCSB at the time, was called back by the State Department to go to Baghdad to be the first person to be in charge of the reconstruction efforts. This was a week or so before the invasion.
  She told me she asked for her staff and the plans for running the country after Saddam, She was told she’d have to create both. They didn’t have any.
  Also Ambassador Bodine didn’t last, since Rumsfeld wanted a more compliant sycophant in charge, and that’s how Paul Bremer got the job instead of Barbara. She knew Arabic and was developing a plan for reviving the army and the administrative structure and getting support of neighboring Arab countries. Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney didn’t want any of that.
   So as a result, Rumsfeld’s policies helped to create the sectarian politics that has plagued Iraq ever since and led to the rise of ISIS, which fed on Sunni resentment at being made second-class citizens by the Shi’a majority government.
   So if you ask whether Iraq is better off now after Saddam, it depends on what ethnic group you’re in:
   Kurds- love it. They hated Saddam and the feeling was mutual. He tried to literally kill them off. Now Kurdistan in the northern region of Iraq is thriving. When you fly into the airport at Erbil, as I have frequently in recent years, working a book on how terrorist movements end that features conversations with old ISIS warriors, you see a big sign saying “welcome to Kurdistan” (no mention of Iraq).
   Shi-a – mixed feelings. Shi’a political leaders are pleased since they are now in charge of the country and are able to have an unbridled alliance with Iran (which was the big winner in the rise of Shi’a power). Shi’a militia have also grown enormously in part in opposition to US occupation (Muqtada el Sadr’s militia especially).
   Sunni – big losers. When I went to Baghdad some months after the invasion and met with Sunni religious leaders they all blamed the US for what they saw as a Shi’a takeover that was making them second-class citizens. And they were right. Access to jobs, military appointments, government support were all difficult under Shi’a regimes. This resentment led to the tacit support of ISIS when it rolled into the Sunni regions of western Iraq, essentially creating a united Sunnistan with the adjacent Sunni regions of eastern Syria, for a time empowering Sunnis in both countries.
   In my recent visits to refugee camps and prisons in northern Iraq, however, I have found the post-ISIS Sunnis to be deeply depressed. Their cities have been destroyed, their ISIS protectors no longer in power, and no change in their second-class status in either Syria or Iraq. The situation is ripe for the return of ISIS or the rise of another form of protest movement.
   All this is Rumsfeld’s legacy. And he departed as always, cocksure and jovial to the end.
   (My forthcoming book referenced in this post, When God Stops Fighting: How Religious Terrorism Ends, will be published later this year by the University of California Press).