05 February 2010

Martyrs Maketh the Religion

I was not long a Buddhist when I first heard these words:

'Though only my skin, sinews and bones remain, and my blood and flesh dry up and wither away, yet will I never stir from this seat until I have attained full enlightenment." [1]
Stirring stuff; or perhaps it sounds like dangerous extremism? Many Buddhists admire this sentiment. But why? In May 2009 the New Scientist published an article titled: Suffering for your beliefs makes other believe too. [2] The article, by Bob Holmes, summarises the findings of a paper published by Joseph Henrich in which he looked at the impact of the sacrifices that religious leaders make, and how these sacrifices - including martyrdom - inspire their followers and create new converts. The more extreme the sacrifice the better, with actual martyrdom being a very powerful motivator. As Holmes says, with apparent irony: '...devotees who take vows of poverty or chastity are clearly putting their money where their mouth is', and in Henrich's words: 'Individuals sticking to such vows (or appearing to) increase their potency as transmitters of the faith.' (p.257) If on the other hand, Holmes says, they are unwilling to make sacrifices, then they make very little impact: 'observers - even young children - quickly pick up on this and withhold their own commitment'. And why is this important? Because the groups that coalesce around such leaders often offer advantages in terms of 'cooperation, solidarity and group success'.

I want to look at this in the light of stories about the Buddha's asceticism, the disappearance of Buddhism from India, and the possible fate of Buddhism in the decadent west.

It is axiomatic in all forms of Buddhism that self-torture is pointless and that causing harm to a living being (including one's self) is in contradiction of the fundamental values of Buddhism. [3] In my article on suicide in Early Buddhist texts (Western Buddhist Review, no.4) I noted the doctrinal problems caused by the suicide of Channa - he is not reborn after having cut his own throat. To not be reborn means he is an arahant; but an arahant could never harm himself. The commentaries invent the idea that Channa became an arahant in the moments between severing his carotid artery and his death, but it isn't very convincing.

One of the most important aspects of the biography/hagiography of the Buddha is that he abandoned his severe austerities and announced that they were not conducive to his goal of eliminating suffering. Even in contemporary India there are people who specialise in austerities: they inflict pain, often quite severe pain, on themselves in various ways. They do this publicly in order to attract the patronage of pious people, and they do find patronage and even followers. But the Buddha rejected all this. He tried it, he took it to the extreme short of actual death, and he found that it did not liberate him. Having given up self-torture he lived a simple, basic and chaste life. He did not seek out pain for the sake of purification, but did teach that physical pain had to be endured mindfully if it could not be avoided. So why, we might wonder, is this phase of his life when he conducted austerities celebrated? Why is it depicted in art? Why is it still marvelled at by Buddhists? My accompanying image this week is a Gandhāran style emaciated Buddha. Images such as this are still produced today and still purchased by pious Buddhists. But given that it represents the Buddha-to-be in error, what is the attraction? Perhaps Joseph Henrich has a point and our faith is enhanced by the knowledge of his suffering - even though it was all for nought?

As Buddhism progressed from being a tiny minority religion, mainly confined to a group of itinerant wanderers in Magadha, to being a large organised affair with universities boasting thousands of students and monasteries accumulating untold wealth, I wonder if Buddhism ceased to inspire the kind of faith that it had done. It is interesting and salutary to consider that Jainism was around before Buddhism, and it survived all the upheavals of Indian history, and is still a presence India to this day. What did they do differently? Perhaps it was that they maintained a public display of self sacrifice in the form of groups of naked ascetics who even today still indulge in austerities, who still seek out the supposed purification that pain brings. Self-torture was, after all, most likely originally a Jain practice which other groups adopted around the time of the Buddha or perhaps a little before.

What about contemporary Buddhism? We would need to look elsewhere to explain, for example, the popularity of Pureland style Buddhism such as Nichiren or Soka Gakkai which do not pursue strategies of austerity, the opposite if anything. However, if Henrich is correct, one can see why austere (and sometimes painful) Zen might have prospered. Similarly, from the point of view being explored here, we can see the appeal of Tibetan refugees who have given up everything, often endured great hardship and narrowly avoided death, while many that remained in Tibet were actually martyred. The Dalai Lama remains cheerful in the face of the worst provocation imaginable - it is not his celibacy which stands out, but his stoically persistent goodwill in the face of the destruction of his country, his religion and his people. Many Theravādin monks also gain credibility through their austerity - and especially in the 'forest' traditions for devotion to meditation.

Perhaps there is a danger in the affluent West that Buddhism becomes a comfortable middle-class preserve. I sometimes detect a hint of 'affluenza' in myself and my peers - the technophilic types who in addition to a computer have a iPod, cellphone, digital camera, nice clothes, newish car, comfortable house, pension plan etc. What Zorba the Greek called "the full catastrophe". Many of us read the lives of historical characters like Milarepa and find them inspiring to a point - not enough to make us give up everything and dedicate ourselves to meditation. Renunciation beyond a certain point is seen by most Western Buddhists as impractical - we often err far towards comfort when assessing the middle way! Even monks live in relative comfort. The old term for a renunciant was paribbajjaka, which means (more or less) 'vagrant'; but to be homeless in the modern West is not an honourable thing. We look on the homeless as victims; often as hapless drug addicts. Not the kind of company the average Buddhist seeks out or wants to emulate.

Perhaps we need to think about what might be inspiring to others about our own lives as currently lived? What have we sacrificed for our practice? I draw a lot of inspiration from my brothers and sisters in the Indian Sangha. They often work full-time for poor wages, live in sub-standard conditions, but still find time to be strongly engaged in Dhamma work: leading classes, giving talks, or contributing in some other way. Indian Dharmacārins are often willing to put their own needs to one side for the benefit of the many (bahujan hitay). They in turn are inspired by Dr Ambedkar who constantly strived for the benefit of his people, and in the end gave up everything to lead them out of the oppression they experienced as outcasts from Hindu society.

Clearly there is more than one way to inspire conversion and commitment. By embodying the positive values we espouse we can also be inspiring. But there must be a few of us at least who are willing to give up everything in order to practice and teach the Dharma - to give up family, career, status, possessions etc, to go the whole hog and totally commit themselves to the three jewels without holding anything back. We have to see what that's like, to have exemplars to inspire. Dr Henrich sees the religious leader as inspiring beliefs which are often counterintuitive. Seen from the point of view of ordinary social discourse the Buddhist ideal is clearly counterintuitive, but it is far from irrational. One can generally see that the more deeply a person practices Buddhism, the happier they are.


  1. This is probably from Appativana Sutta (AN 2.5 PTS: A i 50) - thanks to Dharmacārin Viśvapāṇi for help locating the source. I'm not sure who is responsible for this translation, though it is quoted in Piyadassi's The Buddha : His Life and Teachings.
  2. This is the title of the print article. The link is to the online version which for some reason has a different title: 'Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs'.
  3. An exception to this rule is the bizarre practice of burning oneself, often at ordination, which is popular in East Asian Buddhism. I can only say that this seems to go against the stream of Buddhism generally, and the early Buddhist teachings specifically. It is interesting to note however that non-harming as an ethical principle emerged out of the same community which saw self-torture as the epitome of spiritual practice, and death by starvation as it's apotheosis: the Jains.

  • Holmes, Bon. 'Suffering for your beliefs makes others believe too.' New Scientist. Vol. 202, no.2710. 30 May 2009. Partial article online under the title Religions owe their success to suffering martyrs.
  • Henrich, Joseph (2009). 'The evolution of costly displays, cooperation, and religion: Credibility enhancing displays and their implications for cultural evolution.' Evolution and Human Behaviour, 30, 244-260. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2009.03.005 [pdf]
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