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Myanmar proves ‘Buddhist’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘peaceful’

Opinion: The West is mesmerized by the idea that Buddhism equals non-violence, and it blinds us to the atrocities unfolding in Myanmar


 
In Lahore, Pakistan, protesters carry a banner reading “stop killing rohingya muslims”

Pakistani activists held banners and posters against the persecution of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in Lahore, Pakistan on September 07, 2017. Around 123,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh since violence erupted in Myanmar, according to the U.N. refugee agency. (Zaeem Awais/AP)

Consider, if you will, two images: In one, Hollywood stars like Richard Gere chant om mani padme hum and wax poetic on the merits of peaceful Buddhism.

In another—playing out in real time on your nightly newscasts—terrified Rohingiyan refugees recount horror stories of rape, murder and pillage at the hands of Buddhist extremists.

In the wake of renewed violence by the Burmese military and Buddhist extremists against Rohingiyan Muslims, which many are calling genocide, it’s time to re-examine the old myth of Buddhist non-violence.

This notion, popular amongst white Liberal Buddhist converts in the West, flies in the face of not only current atrocities in Myanmar, but also of historical fact.

MORE: Why Canada should revoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s honorary citizenship

Take Tibet, for instance, where the fact that Buddhist monks violently resisted Chinese occupation is always omitted from the popular narrative. (The Dalai Lama is revered by Western liberals as a kind of living patron saint of non-violence, glossing over the more complex reality; he cheered the U.S. killing of Osama bin Laden.) Commentators often compare the Tibetan conflict to the campaign to end the occupation of Palestine, almost always contrasting “Arab violence” to “peaceful Buddhism.”

But with terrible scenes of brutality on the nightly news of Rohingiyans fleeing barbaric treatment, how long can this myth be sustained? The Disneyfication of Buddhists—yet another excess of the Hollywood narrative that portrays Muslims as mad terrorists while celebrities from Uma Thurman to (ironically) Steven Seagal offer devotional praises—is indeed problematic.

Where are the indignant cries from the West for Buddhists everywhere to collectively apologize and disavow extremists, as Muslims are constantly asked? Some say the violence is perpetrated by a “fringe element” or is an aberration of Buddhist doctrine. Except technically it’s not—as historical and current examples from Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand and elsewhere illustrate.

This myth of Buddhist non-violence, argue many Buddhist scholars, is a product of Western fantasy, rather than doctrinal reality. The “pacifist Buddhist” is a naïve, reductivist concept that doesn’t hold water—scripturally or otherwise.

Now that the phrase “Buddhist militant gang” is being used nightly on the BBC, it might be time to look again at the tradition of the “warrior-monk”—historical examples of monks allying themselves with various emperors, not to mention more recent examples of politically motivated Buddhism.

The European idea of the nation state has been as problematic for Buddhists as is has for Jews and Muslims. In Sri Lanka, for instance, the Bodu Bala Sena BBS (or Buddhist Power Force) movement has been compared to the Taliban for their propagation of extremism and communal violence against Muslims. This ethno-religious fascism has deep roots.

Like Afrikaans and Zionists before them, Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka believe they are Buddha’s “chosen people” and that Sri Lanka is their promised land. They look to scriptural references to the Buddhist warrior King Dutthagamani who, together with his army and 500 Buddhist monks, defeated the Tamil king Elara from South India and dismissed the slain as “animals” and “unbelievers.” They also look to scriptures claiming that the Sinhalese were the first humans to inhabit the island and are the “sons of the soil” (A favourite phrase of white supremacists, deployed again recently in Charlottesville, VA).

In a gesture that recalls the French colonial powers in Lebanon making false claims that the Christians, unlike their Muslim countrymen, were not Arabs but “Phoenicians,” the father of Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism Anagarika Dharmapala (1864–1933), promoted the Sinhalese as racially pure Aryans compared to the “inferior” Dravidian Tamils. And in the same way that the myth of Palestinians and Israelis being eternal enemies has become a key part of the Zionist narrative, he  pointed to scripture to popularize the narrative that Tamils and Sinhalese had been at war for 2,000 years. He also infamously targeted Muslims saying they deceived the “sons of the soil”, “by Shylockian methods.” Today, radical Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka target Muslims and Christians—as well as moderate Buddhists who oppose them.

In 1970’s Thailand, nationalist Buddhist monks like Phra Kittiwuttho turned to scriptural “precepts” to justify the killing of Communists. And intriguingly, the Buddhist parable of the Buddha as “Captain Compassionate”—a story about how the Buddha as the captain of a ship had to kill one murderer to save 500 passengers—was exploited by Communists to encourage Chinese Buddhists to fight in Korea. The same story was used to condone the Japanese war effort in WW2, much to the chagrin of Chinese Buddhists.

The demonization of Muslims in the name of “Buddhism” is indeed unfortunate, especially when one considers that the central precept of Islam—jihad al nafs, or “the struggle against the self”—shares much in common with Buddhist doctrines of self-discipline. Of course Buddhism, like Islam, is not a monolith, and also experiences problematic stereotyping.

Still it’s hard not to look at what’s going on in South Asia and Burma today and not find incongruities with scriptures like this from the  Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta:

“And how is one made pure in three ways by bodily action? There is the case where a certain person, abandoning the taking of life, abstains from the taking of life. He dwells with his… knife laid down, scrupulous, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings.”

Indeed, this could be the Buddhist equivalent of the often-cited Quranic verse: “If anyone kills a person It would be as if he killed all mankind.”

Sadly, no one has a monopoly on religious hypocrisy. But the sooner we drop the Pollyanaish vision of Buddhism and face more brutal realities, the better.


 

Myanmar proves ‘Buddhist’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘peaceful’

  1. So by being peaceful, you expect the Rakhine to just walk away and let the Rohingyas do as they please. I think the Buddhists tried that in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and south Thailand. Well, there ain’t any Buddhists there anymore. They have either fled their ancestral lands or have been massacred. You may be a peaceful person but you are justified to fight back if someone breaks into your home to kill or steal.

    • Nice job posting a lie. There haven’t been any persecution against Buddhists and if you’re going to act like a victim, try to be more realistic about it. You’re the majority and you’re killing people of minority for having a different religion. That’s a fact, you claim to be peaceful but you’re actually monsters behind the mask. Shame on people like you.

      • Bet you just read BBC and CNN. Get yourself educated. Learn about the ARSA and the atrocities committed against the Rakhines since 1947. Are you even aware that the Indian govt is assisting the Burmese govt in its cleanup operations in the area? Don’t believe me? Do your own research and stop acting like a mushroom.

  2. Author’s comparison of Buddhism to Islam is laughable. Buddhism was founded by a non-violent, saintly figure of Gautama Buddha while Islam was founded by sword-wielding warlord Mohammad. Moreover, the problem in Burma is a multi-dimensional one involving both the actors inside and outside the country with both the Buddhist and Muslims commuting autocracies against each other. Moreover, Buddhists are also human beings possessing anxiety, fear and emotional reactions. What has happened to Buddhists who refused to took arm against Moslim violence? They were annihilated in Afghanistan, Xinjiang, India and Bangladesh. The writer has to learn more rather than parroting the propaganda by Middle East and Soros funded media

  3. You have not done your research Ms Hadani Ditmars. Do you think educated people are going to swallow this bile? No they won’t. You clearly know nothing about the conflicts in Asia and Buddhism for that matter. Firstly, you can’t justify violence in the name of Buddhism when one of the Five Precepts is to practice non-violence. Secondly, the Sri Lankan Civil War was an ethnic conflict not religious. No, the Sinhalese Buddhists don’t believe they are the “chosen people” stop making stuff up, that type of rubbish does not occur in Eastern religions. Are you aware that Tamil nationalists, prior to the war, perpetuated the idea that the Sinhalese were a mixed race of Indo-Aryan, Dravidian and East Asian elements and were “inferior” to the “pure” Dravidian Tamils because they had mixed origins? No you don’t know this because you don’t do your research. Are you aware that there is a recognized indigenous Muslim minority in Myanmar called the Kaman who are not persecuted? Are you aware of the bombings of Thai Buddhists in southern Thailand by Malay Muslim militants? No you don’t know this either because you are blinded by your bias and ignorance. You’re not giving equal coverage to these events so I don’t see any reason why anyone should even read your articles. Why are people so stupid to think just because a Buddhist commits an act of violence it’s directly related to Buddhism? What type of stupid logic is that? So I guess the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks and Kurds was Islamic terrorism? I know in your books it won’t be a “religious conflict” but when it comes to Myanmar it’s definitely “religious”. It’s not and this repulsive journalism shows me you are very ignorant.

    Shame on you Ms Hadani Ditmars.

    • Any religion is or has been a ferocious murder and torture group. The people who make up these groups are human and surely no one is going to try and tell me that humans are peaceful.
      The above article and the comments try to explain it is only a small group who commit these atrocities and the main religious believers are either victims or peaceful followers of the creed.
      In particular, the believers in a creed that move to western countries all disclaim to go along with what is going on. However, all still believe in those religion’s teachings sort of ignoring all the bad parts.
      Instead of teaching their myths the emphasis should be teaching human rights and moral behaviour and abhorring violence and vicious behaviour towards anyone not fitting their idea of the norm.
      There is no other behaviour that qualifies for being civilized.

      • Based on your reply I don’t think you know anything about Buddhism. No one is forced to believe anything in Buddhism, there are no punishments if you don’t believe things, no one goes to hell for converting out of the religion, in fact there is no conversion ceremony to begin with. Buddhism and many other Eastern religions focus on the self and bettering oneself, nothing else. If you re-read the article, Ms Hadani Ditmars is making up things about Sinhalese Buddhists believing they are the “chosen people’ of the Buddha and that Sri Lanka is their “promised land”, that is absolute rubbish and she knows it. Is she confusing this with Christianity and the Crusades? I can’t believe she is actually lying to her readers, anyone with knowledge on these things would know what she is saying are a bunch of lies. She clearly lacks knowledge on Buddhism and of East, South and Southeast Asian cultures. The Buddha said that he was not a god and should not be treated as such so making up such lies only loses credibility. Had she known that no such thing exists and written her article in a manner that does not blame Buddhism, but the people involved, I would have taken her seriously. I see no problem in pointing out the errors of her article, people need to have a better understanding on what non-Abrahamic religions mean in Asia and what Eastern religions are, they differ significantly from Abrahamic religions. Someone who decides to lie in order to point out something that they disagree with should not be taken seriously. It’s ridiculous that people think Buddhists are all conditioned to be non-violent, almost like they have a gene that makes them peaceful. That is not the case and to believe that just because someone is Buddhist they are peaceful is ludicrous. I don’t swallow everything people say, I make sure what I read is actually true. What she said was not, hence why I posted my initial comment.

      • Had Ms Hadani Ditmars looked at the issue through an “Eastern lens”, since the issue being discussed here is a cultural and social issue/phenomenon of Asian origin, this article would not have existed in the way it does now. As I said there needs to be a better understanding of cultural habits, perspectives and values when discussing international affairs that differ culturally from the author’s country of origin.

  4. Many thanks for this article, Hadani. It’s a mistake to regard any religion as inherently peaceful, and ignore the fact that members of any religious, ethnic or cultural group are capable of violence and oppression on gaining power.

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