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.
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.
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