Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence, shows Buddhists persecuting Christians in Japan, opening a window on the dark side of Buddhist history? How should modern Buddhists respond?

It’s intriguing to hear that the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have expressed remorse for the violence that followed the Protestant Reformation. This raises familiar questions: how can present day figures apologise for the actions of their predecessors? And will there be something reciprocal for Catholic actions in the Counter-Reformation?

Meanwhile Martin Scorsese’s film Silence is currently showing in cinemas. Its tells another story from the Seventeenth Century, but set in Japan and exploring the persecution of Catholic believers and their Jesuit priests. In one scene, Christian villagers, having refused to renounce their faith, are crucified in the rising tide of the Pacific. The story the film tells is based on historical persecution undertaken for the sake of Japanese identity, political stability, Shinto … and Buddhism.

Sadly, the notion that Buddhism is purely a religion of peace belongs in the realm of myth rather than history.  Over the centuries, Buddhist states have had armies, monks have trained soldiers and both Japan and China had a tradition of warrior monks. There have been battles between Buddhist sects and wars between Buddhist countries, including some waged by past Dalai Lamas. As well as persecuting members of other faiths, there have been violent forced conversions, and Buddhists have both used and justified torture.

Because Buddhism has such a benign reputation it’s tempting for we Buddhists to piously judge other religions. In a similar vein, I suspect that secularists can be tempted to dismiss all religions because they are all prone to such ethical failings. But, in truth, blood stains all our histories, including those of secular regimes and liberal democracies.

As I understand it, Buddhism is essentially a pacifist faith that asks people to refrain from violence and root out the forces in their hearts and minds from which it develops. The challenge, however, is to encompass the gap between the ethically pure ideal and the much messier, ethically compromised reality. How do vested interests and nationalist feelings cause Buddhists to conform to the State? And how are core principles, such as non-violence, first qualified, then muddied or made relative, and eventually forgotten? Whatever beliefs we follow, we need to ponder how the good intentions they express can eventually cause suffering.

So, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. May we apologise and ask forgiveness where it is needed, clearly acknowledging our faults. May we acknowledge that human beings cannot live without causing harm. And may we challenge the beliefs that justify it.