Why are Buddhist monks attacking Muslims?
By Alan Strathern
Of all the moral precepts instilled in Buddhist monks the promise not to kill comes first, and the principle of non-violence is arguably more central to Buddhism than any other major religion. So why have monks been using hate speech against Muslims and joining mobs that have left dozens dead?Indeed. If one were to sum up Buddhism as it is understood in the 21st Century by most of the Western World, I would agree. However, the concept of following the "middle path" is also a key principle of Buddhist teaching and sometimes an individual must decide for themselves whether it is worse to be a victim of violence and allow a threat to overtake a person, community, city, etc. or to actively prevent such violence to occur where a threat is perceived. The pacifist Ghandi was a Hindu, not a Buddhist. There are teachings which guide Buddhist practitioners to trust their own judgement when it comes to deciding when it is appropriate to sit and do nothing or take action. Sometimes, taking action against a threat is the least violent option in the long run.
This is happening in two countries separated by well over 1,000 miles of Indian Ocean - Burma and Sri Lanka. It is puzzling because neither country is facing an Islamist militant threat. Muslims in both places are a generally peaceable and small minority.Without knowing anything about the Bodu Bala Sena or specific details, I have to wonder right off the bat if the problem is actually a question of dietary morals. The majority of Buddhist dominant cultures (but not all) emphasize a vegetarian diet as part of the non-violent principle mentioned above. While Halal slaughter may ease Muslims of any moral dilemma, it does no such thing for Buddhists.
In Sri Lanka, the issue of halal slaughter has been a flashpoint. Led by monks, members of the Bodu Bala Sena - the Buddhist Brigade - hold rallies, call for direct action and the boycotting of Muslim businesses, and rail against the size of Muslim families.
While no Muslims have been killed in Sri Lanka, the Burmese situation is far more serious. Here the antagonism is spearheaded by the 969 group, led by a monk, Ashin Wirathu, who was jailed in 2003 for inciting religious hatred. Released in 2012, he has referred to himself bizarrely as "the Burmese Bin Laden".For the record, I don't support anyone who likens themselves to Bin Laden, Buddhist or otherwise. There is another teaching in Buddhism which encourages practitioners to see that their teachers are just humans and prone to imperfection. They might know A LOT about Buddhism but that doesn't mean you should follow in their footsteps or believe every word that comes out of their mouth. I believe the exact translation is "If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him". Which means that even the most seemingly enlightened beings are not 100 % infallible and if they teach you something that goes against common sense or what you know to be right based on your own experience, you don't have to accept it. In fact, that statement encourages students to constantly question what they are being taught, thereby becoming teachers to the teacher. The real lesson is, don't accept any one source as the only source and trust your instincts if it doesn't feel right.
March saw an outbreak of mob violence directed against Muslims in the town of Meiktila, in central Burma, which left at least 40 dead.At least in the West, our understanding of Buddhism is still so immature that I hope this doesn't lead to a huge backlash against the positive aspects of it as a psychological/philosophical worldview. The quote above is clearly addressing a local issue where Buddhism is viewed as a major religion with its own dogma and rituals as adopted by a specific culture. I can't emphasize enough how this specific culture's adaptation of Buddhism is NOT the same as any other Buddhism elsewhere. The nature of Buddhism, and all religious philosophy in fact, is to travel and be adapted into any native cultures it comes into contact with. Which is why the Buddhism of Tibet is completely different than the "Chan" of China and the "Zen" of Japan. They are all based on the same teachings.
Tellingly, the violence began in a gold shop. The movements in both countries exploit a sense of economic grievance - a religious minority is used as the scapegoat for the frustrated aspirations of the majority.
On Tuesday, Buddhist mobs attacked mosques and burned more than 70 homes in Oakkan, north of Rangoon, after a Muslim girl on a bicycle collided with a monk. One person died and nine were injured.There are no "Good Guys", just guys. Imperfect human guys, who might have grown up with some version of Buddhism as their religion and when push came to shove, they chose to shove. Just because they call themselves Buddhist doesn't mean they are. And if they are, they are only human.
But aren't Buddhist monks meant to be the good guys of religion?
Aggressive thoughts are inimical to all Buddhist teachings. Buddhism even comes equipped with a practical way to eliminate them. Through meditation the distinction between your feelings and those of others should begin to dissolve, while your compassion for all living things grows.
Of course, there is a strong strain of pacifism in Christian teachings too: "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," were the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.Exactly. No matter what religion or philosophy you turn to, there are words of comfort and positivity in the teachings, or else you wouldn't keep practicing it.
But however any religion starts out, sooner or later it enters into a Faustian pact with state power. Buddhist monks looked to kings, the ultimate wielders of violence, for the support, patronage and order that only they could provide. Kings looked to monks to provide the popular legitimacy that only such a high moral vision can confer.Unfortunately, this is correct. But, I take heart in the fact that the original teachings of the Buddha have not been as politically decimated as the Christian bible. Since I know that each translation of the Koran is supposed to have the original text in Arabic written with it, I would predict that it is fairly accurate to its historical origin. Each religion has been integrated into any cultures it came across in different ways resulting in the modern idea of many "sects". The Buddhists of Tibet are as different from those of Sri Lanka as the Muslims from Iran are from those in Afghanistan. This is because each culture has integrated with these religions and now cultural distinctions are considered normal parts of the religion in question.
The result can seem ironic. If you have a strong sense of the overriding moral superiority of your worldview, then the need to protect and advance it can seem the most important duty of all.
Christian crusaders, Islamist militants, or the leaders of "freedom-loving nations", all justify what they see as necessary violence in the name of a higher good. Buddhist rulers and monks have been no exception.