, , , , ,

I only recently became aware that Michael Jerryson passed away last year – far too young, barely older than myself. I would like to offer my tribute to him here.

Michael Jerryson (1974-2021)

I knew Michael personally because of a wonderful biannual invite-only conference that brings together scholars of Buddhist ethics. He and I certainly clashed, for he would claim that scholars – even in ethics! – should not themselves be taking normative positions. I am not exactly friendly to that view. But the debates themselves were friendly and warm, as they should be – and as Michael himself was.

I know why Michael took the position he did, that Buddhism scholars should only describe and not evaluate. His work was in a genre with the works of Stephen Jenkins and Brian Victoria: providing a much-needed corrective to the too-often-held view that Buddhism is a necessarily peaceful and pacifist tradition. As it turns out, there has been violence aplenty committed in its name. And when we focus on the nonviolent Buddhist ideals that we ourselves admire, we must not blind ourselves to that.

Michael’s work was particulary poignant for me because it explored Buddhist violence in Thailand, where I’d had my life-changing epiphany. That epiphany was in the north and northeast of the country (along with neighbouring Laos), whereas Michael’s work focused on the south. Now to most Western visitors like me, southern Thailand and its sunny beaches typically play the role of a vacation getaway. But proceed further south than most Westerners go, near the Malaysian border, and one finds a different, more violent world. The southern Thai situation is not the situation in Burma where there are clear-cut good guys and bad guys: impoverished Muslim refugees and Buddhist monks urging their butchering. It is a more standard situation of ethnic conflict, where a dominant political majority group treats a minority in ways that make them chafe, the minority wants to split off politically and violence ensues. But since the groups are marked as Muslim and Buddhist, Buddhists commit violent acts in the name of Buddhism.

So while I do agree with Sallie King that violent extremism is “not a valid expression of the dharma”, I think King and I have to be clear that when we say this, we are speaking as theologians, engaging in the proper academic activity of developing normative philosophical positions grounded in our faith commitments. We are not providing a sociological description of those extremists, who see themselves as expressing the dharma perfectly validly. We think they’re wrong about that, just as academic Christian theologians might think creationists are wrong about evolution – but those theologians need to be clear that those creationists see themselves as Christian.

The descriptive and the normative get especially conflated in discussions of engaged Buddhism. There has never been real agreement about what “engaged Buddhism” means. Is it a specific modern movement, progressive in a broad sense, starting with Dharmapala and Taixu? Or is it an older and more general tendency within Buddhism toward political action, Steven Collins’s non-disengaged “mode”, including classical works on kingship? (Such as the Mahāvaṃsa, which urges the killing of unbelievers?)

Engaged Buddhist scholars tend to confuse the two: collapsing Buddhist political engagement in general into the views of the modern progressive left. In so doing, it makes invisible the people who Michael Jerryson studied: people who do things that we leftists find bad, and do so in the name of Buddhism. Michael studied people who call themselves Buddhists and who are politically engaged, but are rarely considered “engaged Buddhists”. His work was a much needed corrective.

I’ll close with my personal memory of Michael that most stands out: of his preparedness. The accommodation provided by the conference in its first year was in a campus residence; the organizers had noted that this arrangement meant shared rooms, but not that it meant there would be no toiletries! I was left fecklessly without any soap or shampoo. Michael, however, had brought so much of these that he could not merely lend me his own supply, but lend me additional bottles to last me through the conference while he used his own. I owed my comfort there to him.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.