Christian Caryl

Weren’t Buddhists Supposed to Be Pacifists?

Weren’t Buddhists Supposed to Be Pacifists?

The man’s body lies on a blanket striped in white and blue. He’s wearing a dark brown tank top and a dark blue flowered sarong. Someone has tied his hands behind his back with rope. There are deep red gashes on his head and shoulders — some of them presumably the wounds that ended his life. 

The man in the photo is a Muslim. The people who killed him were almost certainly Buddhists. He was a victim in last fall’s sectarian bloodshed in western Burma, which pitted members of the two religions against each other. The image comes from a new report by Human Rights Watch that carefully documents the violence that took some 200 lives and resulted in the forced displacement of some 125,000 people. (A more recent wave of violence within the past few weeks has taken some 40 additional lives and triggered another surge of refugees.) The report argues persuasively that state institutions, including the police, often stood by while Buddhist rioters went after their Muslim neighbors — and in some cases may have even helped to organize the attacks. A mere 4 percent of Burma’s population of Burma is Muslim, while well over 90 percent are Buddhists. Perhaps the fact that the government sided with the majority probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise. (The allegations didn’t stop the International Crisis Group, a leading western humanitarian organization, from giving an award to President Thein Sein earlier this week.) 

But wait: Isn’t Buddhism a religion that places respect for life and the embrace of peace at the very center of its worldview? The Buddha himself placed compassion at the root of his teachings, and in Burma itself, it was Buddhist monks who set the rigorously non-violent tone of the massive anti-government demonstrations back in 2007. The chants of the saffron-robed protestors were powerfully moving: "May all beings living to the East be free; all beings in the universe be free, free from fear, free from all distress!" 

It turns out, sadly, that some Buddhist monks don’t see this as a binding ethical imperative. Monks have been prominent among those inciting the recent bloodshed. The most notable is U Wirathu, a monk at a prominent monastery who’s made a name for himself lately as an apologist for anti-Muslim sentiment and the organizer of the "969" movement, which has been issuing stickers and signs emblazoned with that number (which has symbolic significance for Burmese Buddhists) to identify businesses that refuse to serve Muslims — exactly the kind of policy the monk is aiming to promote. He’s said to have referred to himself as "the Buddhist Osama bin Laden." How can this sort of bigotry possibly be reconciled with the teachings of the Enlightened One? 

I’m happy to say that there are plenty of other Buddhist monks in Burma who have been pushing back against their chauvinist colleagues. But to understand what’s been happening, we also need to take a closer look at those who claim to be standing up for Buddhism even as they’ve doing things that don’t seem to be easily reconcilable with their religion. 

First of all, the notion of Buddhism as an inherently pacifist religion has a strong element of Western oversimplification. Buddhist teaching has never prohibited believers from fighting in defense of a just cause. As the scholars Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer show in their book Buddhist Warfare, Buddhists have participated in wars ever since their faith came into being. Militant monks have fought for Chinese rulers (and against them) for centuries. Japan’s samurai warriors were ardent Buddhists, men who cited the Buddha’s teachings on the impermanence of physical existence as a good argument for soldiering. 

When the Dalai Lama urges his fellow Tibetans to maintain non-violence in their struggle against Chinese rule, his fans in the West tend to see this as a typically Buddhist attitude. But, as some astute observers have pointed out, the Dalai Lama’s embrace of civil disobedience may owe as much to Gandhi and Martin Luther King as it does to his fellow believers. (Nor, intriguingly, did it stop His Holiness from approving the killing of Osama bin Laden, though he later qualified his position when it became clear that the al Qaeda leader was unarmed when he was shot.) Indeed, his religious authority hasn’t been enough to prevent over 100 Tibetans from killing themselves as a protest against Chinese policy despite his injunctions against suicide. (Happily, in the wake of the Human Rights Watch report, he has been urging the monks in Burma to end the violence there.) 

But doctrine is only part of the problem. All religions — Buddhism included — tend to create a powerful sense of collective identity among their followers. All of the great world religions emphasize the sanctity of human life, and strive to limit the use of violence to what’s admissible in certain cases. But those careful distinctions tend to go out the window when a group of believers feels that its values are under threat. 

As the current crisis in Burma demonstrates, modern Buddhists are just as susceptible to identity politics as anyone else. In March, police in Sri Lanka stood by as Buddhist monks led a mob that pillaged a Muslim-owned garment warehouse. Sri Lanka, which has been convulsed for years by a civil war between majority Buddhists and minority Tamils, is home to several hard-line Buddhist political movements, including something called the "Buddhist Strength Force," which has recently made a name for itself with vitriolic anti-Muslim rhetoric. "It is the monks who protect our country, religion, and race," said Sri Lankan Defense Minister Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in a recent speech — reinforcing suspicions that militant monks enjoy tacit government support. 

The government in Thailand, meanwhile, has armed local Buddhist groups to counter a simmering Muslim insurgency in the south of the country. The militias, which are distinct from the regular army and the police, have the job of defending Buddhist communities against potential attacks — and perhaps deepening the sectarian dimension in that long-running conflict. 

What all three of these countries have in common is an ominous trend in which governments and religious institutions are lending support to destructive sectarian forces. Muslims may well bear some of the responsibility for the killings in Burma, but the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that most of the violence was committed by far more numerous Buddhists who enjoyed crucial support from local officials and religious leaders. 

None of this, of course, is to argue that Buddhists are uniquely evil. It’s merely to point out that some of our idealized notions a
bout the purity of Buddhism don’t live up to real-world scrutiny. We shouldn’t give Buddhist extremists a pass any more than we would their Muslim, Christian, or Jewish equivalents; otherwise we run the risk of becoming complicit in their crimes. Just because the conflicts they create are in far-away, exotic places is no excuse for complacency.

The world is too small for that.