Buddhism is generally seen as associated with non-violence and peace. These are certainly both strongly represented in its value system. This does not mean, though, that Buddhists have always been peaceful. Buddhist countries have had their fair share of war and conflict, for most of the reasons that wars have occurred elsewhere. Yet it is difficult to find any Buddhist rationales for violence, and Buddhism has some particularly rich resources for use in dissolving conflict. Overall, it can be observed that Buddhism has had a general humanizing effect throughout much of Asia. It has tempered the excesses of rulers and martial people, helped large empires (for example, China) to exist without much internal conflict, and rarely, if at all, incited wars against non-Buddhists. Moreover, in the midst of wars, Buddhist monasteries have often been havens of peace.—Peter Harvey
Inspired by a post by Kenan Malik, “Buddhist Pogroms and Religious Conflicts,” I’ve assembled a small list of titles (below) that treat the topic of Buddhists resorting to violence in the context of social and political conflicts, especially Buddhists whose individual and collective identity has become entangled if not fused with nationalism. Malik begins his piece with the dire situation of the Myanmar’s (Burma’s) Rohingya:
“The Rohingya are Muslims who live mostly in Rakhine, in the north west of the country, bordering Bangladesh. Early Muslim settlements date back to the 7th century. Today, in a nation that is 90 per cent Buddhist, there are some 8 million Muslims of which probably a quarter are Rohingya. Many feel they are fighting for their very existence.
The military junta that came to power in Myanmar in 1962 (or Burma as it was then) has, over the past half century, sought to build popular support for its rule by fomenting hatred against minority groups. The Rohingya have been stripped of citizenship and officially declared foreigners in their native land. Restrictions have been placed on the Rohingya owning land, travelling outside their villages, receiving an education and having children.
The recent successes of the democracy movement has paradoxically only worsened the problems of the Rohingya. The junta, still clinging to power, has sharpened its anti-Rohingya rhetoric in an attempt to bolster its position. The democracy movement has refused to support the Rohingya for fear of alienating its largely Buddhist constituency. The leader of the democracy movement, the Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been shamefully silent. When asked to condemn violence against the Rohingya, the furthest she has been willing to go is to condemn violence in general. Many members of her National League for Democracy are openly involved in extremist anti-Rohingya organizations.
The result has been over the past year an unprecedented series of pogroms against the Rohingya. Villages, schools, workplaces and mosques have been attacked and torched by Buddhist mobs, often aided by the security forces. Hundreds of Rohingya have been killed and some 140,000 left homeless.
The anti-Muslim campaign has been led by monks who justify their actions as in keeping with the demands of Buddhism. The principal anti-Rohingya organization, the 969 movement, takes its name from the traditional nine qualities of Buddha, six qualities of his teachings and nine qualities of the monks. Its leader, a monk named Wirathu, has reportedly called himself the ‘Burmese bin Laden.’ Muslims, he insists, ‘breed quickly and they are very violent and they eat their own kind.’ Because ‘the Burmese people and the Buddhists are devoured every day, the national religion needs to be protected.’ Another prominent 969 monk, Wimala Biwuntha, insists that without the anti-Royhinga campaign ‘we’ll lose our religion and our race.’ Myanmar’s minister of religious affairs, Sann Sint, has backed the anti-Rohingya campaign.”
Malik also introduces us to the historic mobilization of Buddhist chauvinism against the Tamils in Sri Lanka, with the end of the war against the Tamils finding that chauvinism now directed at Muslims!
One of Malik’s conclusions is especially important, having implications beyond Buddhism. He argues that despite the prominent role of religious identity as an important variable in these violent conflicts,
“it would be as wrong to see many, perhaps most, of these conflicts as purely religious confrontations as it would be to see the anti-Rohingya pogroms as a religious war. Many have, like the confrontations in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, complex social and political roots, as groups vying for political power have exploited religion and religious identities to gain support. The importance of religion in these conflicts is often less in creating the tensions than in helping establish the chauvinist identities through which certain groups are demonized and one’s own actions justified.”
It is no doubt true that many “New Age,” “liberal,” and even “secular” Buddhists have romanticized and idealized Buddhism generally, succumbing to Orientalist illusions (most vividly perhaps in the case of Tibetan Buddhism) or fantasies that prevent them from coming to grips with the darker realities of “Buddhism on the ground” in countries like Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. I suppose we might find some consolation in the fact that Buddhist groups and organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship and the International Network of Engaged Buddhists have taken on the task of educating themselves and others about the Buddhist resort to violence in the contemporary world.
Violent Buddhists: A Select Bibliography
- Bartholomeusz, Tessa J. In Defense of Dharma: Just-War Ideology in Buddhist Sri Lanka. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2002.
- Dalton, Jacob. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011.
- Ives, Christopher. Imperial-Way Zen: Ichikawa Hakugen’s Critique and Lingering Questions for Buddhist Ethics. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawai’i Press, 2009.
- Jerryson, Michael K. Buddhist Fury: Religion and Violence in Southern Thailand. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
- Jerryson, Michael K. and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. Buddhist Warfare. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
- King, Winston L. Zen and the Way of the Sword: Arming the Samurai Psyche. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.
- Tambiah, Stanley J. Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics, and Violence in Sri Lanka. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
- Tikhonov, Vladimir and Torkel Brekke, eds. Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia. New York: Routledge, 2013.
- Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen War Stories. London: Routledge Curzon, 2001.
- Victoria, Brian Daizen. Zen at War. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2nd ed., 2006.
- Yu, Xue. Buddhism, War, and Nationalism: Chinese Monks in the Struggle against Japanese Aggressions, 1931-1945. New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Cavanaugh, William. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.
- Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Kakar, Sudhir. The Colors of Violence: Cultural Identities, Religion, and Conflict. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
- Kippenberger, Hans. Violence as Worship: Religious Wars in the Age of Globalization. Stanford, CA: Stanford University, 2011.
- Lopez, Donald S., Jr. Prisoners of Shangri-La: Tibetan Buddhism and the West. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998.