A rather shallow inquiry. For one, the historical scope is limited to the past couple centuries, or so, and its treatment of Buddhist thought is rather shallow. The writers are Western academic philosophers and their engagement with Buddhist teachings has that superficial feel that Western philosophers often bring to their inquiry - philosophy being some sort of logic puzzle.
They make good points but the significance I take, and judging by the comments to the article, others take, is different than the authors. I think the below section gets to the heart of it:
There are a couple points I would make.There is a philosophically problematic presupposition that also figures in widespread surprise at the very idea of violence perpetrated by Buddhists — that there is a straightforward relationship between the beliefs people hold and the likelihood that they will behave in corresponding ways.
Even if we suppose that most Buddhists, or members of any other religious group, really do hold beliefs that are pacifist and tolerant, we have no reason to expect that they will really be pacifist and tolerant. As Immanuel Kant well understood, we are not transparent to ourselves and can never exhaustively know why we do what we do. We can never be certain whether or to what extent we have acted for the reasons we think we did (whether because, for example, “it was the right thing to do”), or whether we are under the sway of psychological, neurophysiological or socioeconomic causes that are altogether opaque to us.
That doesn’t mean that we should (or can) jettison all reference to our stated beliefs, reasons, rationality; indeed, Kant also cogently argued that despite the efforts of all manner of determinists, we cannot coherently explain these away (for any attempt to explain away our rationality would itself represent a use of that faculty). But it does mean that we cannot infer from, say, a society’s widely held belief in toleration and peace that the actions of people in that society will be strictly guided by those beliefs.
We should thus be wary of any narrative on which historical events are straightforwardly explained by the fact that the people in any society hold whatever religious beliefs they do. It just doesn’t follow from the fact that someone is admirable — or for that matter, that she is vile — that it is because of her beliefs that she is so. Given this, we should expect that even in societies where virtuous beliefs are widely held, we will find pretty much the same range of human failings evident throughout history. Buddhist societies are no different in this respect than others.
Many of history’s great Buddhist philosophers would themselves acknowledge as much. Buddhist thinkers have typically emphasized that there is a profound difference between merely assenting to a belief (for example, that all sentient beings deserve compassion) and actually living in ways informed by that belief. To be really changed by a belief regarding one’s relationship to all other beings, one must cultivate that belief — one must come to experience it as vividly real — through the disciplined practices of the Buddhist path.
The reason this is necessary, Buddhist philosophers recognized, is that all of us — even those who are Buddhists — are deeply habituated to self-centered ways of being. Indeed, if that weren’t the case, there would be no need for Buddhist practice; it is just because people everywhere (even in Tibet, Myanmar and Japan) are generally self-centered that it takes so much work — innumerable lifetimes of it, according to many Buddhists — to overcome the habituated dispositions that typically run riot over our stated beliefs.
1. Dharma is not a set of commands. The nature of a lot of Western philosophy can structurally be boiled down to a set of rules, typically (and simplistically, I admit) formulated as, "If a, then you do b." Rather, Dharma is addressed to that process that precedes the identification of "a". Long before we get to some command stipulated by logic, Dharma counsels that the real nature of "a" be ascertained first. Even basic vows do not carry the kind of weight attributed to the sort of commands that philosophy is concerned with. So, when Buddhists commit violence, its not understood as a breaking of some commandment, but rather, the expression of our tendencies flowing from the three poisons.
And maybe the real disconnect here is not the surprise that Buddhists commit violence, but the real issue is the misunderstanding of what Dharma is and how the problems of violence are understood within the tradition.
2. Which brings me to a second point. The authors seem to go too far in trying to distinguish dharmas and behavior (here I am deliberately referring to dharma in the generic sense). Ideas give structure to our actions. Dharmas hold us in certain patterns of thought, word, and deed. They are intimately connected to each other. The authors seem to fall a little too heavily on the side that regardless of the dharmas, human beings will act out their nature, and that dharmas only serve as a rationalization after the fact. This is highlighted by the rather limited historical scope they limit themselves to.
IMHO, Dharmas do matter - maybe they don't have the precise impact of a meticulously followed set of commandments, but they have profound impact in ordering reality, establishing tropes and normative behaviors. I believe they have powerful impacts over time, but the influence is difficult to discern, like the effect of water on a fish. The soup of ideas and normative behaviors we are immersed in cannot easily be distinguished from everything else we think, say and do. To try and distinguish them seems naive.