- Buddhism for a Violent World
This genre-bridging book is in part a spiritual autobiography, a primer in Theravāda Buddhism, a reflection on the war in Sri Lanka, and a theology of interreligious dialogue. There are tantalizing glimpses of all of these aspects in six compact chapters, which makes the book stimulating.
Elizabeth Harris draws on her experience living for nearly eight years in Sri Lanka (1986-1993) and serving as the national Inter Faith Officer for the Methodist Church in the UK (1996-2007). Soon after arriving in Sri Lanka, she began academic study of Theravāda Buddhism and meditation training, where she associated with such renowned figures as Asian liberation theologian Aloysius Pieris, SJ, and Buddhist nun Ayya Khema. Although deeply attracted to Buddhism, she has remained firmly identified as a Christian. Nevertheless, interreligious contact has wrought changes to her faith and challenged her ethical framework.
Her major previous book is a historical study of religious encounter titled Theravāda Buddhism and the British Encounter: Religious, Missionary and Colonial Experience in Nineteenth-Century Sri Lanka (New York: Routledge, 2006). She also has numerous other publications exploring early Buddhist texts and Christian perceptions of Buddhism. Given her interests and experiences, one might expect Buddhism for a Violent World to focus on negative facets of religion during colonization or the recent war between the Sinhalese and Tamils. However, the book treats both religions charitably and looks for peaceful potential and emphasizes "touching points" that bring out the best in both traditions (p. 6). [End Page 157]
The first chapter offers interesting accounts of Harris's experiences in Sri Lanka. It describes her mystical encounter with the image of the Buddha at Anuradhapura in 1984, which drew her to Buddhist practice. At first, she felt puzzled and even threatened, and she was reluctant to place Buddhist meditation on par with Christian prayer and Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. But while starting as an observer, she soon became a participant in rituals at a local vihara (temple) in Colombo, and then took part in festivals and pilgrimages. Later she stayed at a retreat center in Nilambe in the central hills, where she followed a strict meditation schedule. Due to the civil war, she was at times in immediate danger and she knew Christian and Buddhist friends who died. Her appreciation of the imperative to end dukkha was enhanced by seeing severe suffering caused by religious conflict. It was a turning point when, under the guidance of Father Aloysius Pieris, she decided to let go of Christian conceptual categories and embrace religious experience without applying labels.
Chapter 2 gives an overview of Buddhist teachings about the human condition. It addresses misconceptions of Buddhism, such as the assumption that it is pessimistic. She clarifies that it is actually realistic, expressing the problems caused by human greed, hatred, and delusion—a point she illustrates well in reflecting on recent Sri Lankan history. Harris and her community were in danger from the JVP, a Sinha-lese Marxist rebel group that killed many thousands of fellow Sinhalese in the south during the late 1980s. This threat convinced some of Harris's Buddhist colleagues that monastic-style meditation was essential to help heal fear and loss, alongside traditional Buddhist ceremonies. Harris suggests that the Buddhist explanation for Sri Lankan violence, and the response of compassion and education can offer a more satisfactory account of the war more effectively than the Christian term "sin" conceptualized in terms of alienation from God (p. 35), a somewhat controversial observation.
The central two chapters discuss the why and how of Buddhist practice. Chapter 3, "The Path," explains the development of non-attachment and compassion and the eradication of delusions. It is helpful that Harris focuses on the Christian stereotype and misconception of Buddhism as seeking withdrawal and personal peace. She wonders whether it is selfish to seek liberation from suffering rather than Christ-like suffering for others. To be fair, she remarks that this critique does not arise only from Westerners, but in fact Buddhist history praises figures who withdraw into solitary contemplation...