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Between Buddhism and Violence in Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet

By Fang-Long Shih
Co-Director, LSE Taiwan Research Programme
1 July 2013

The media has expressed surprise at the existence of Buddhism and violence, and in some cases has referred a 'warped' interpretation of Buddhism as a potential explanation for violence. All these questions spring from a kind of shock and puzzle that Buddhism and violence could ever be linked. This incapacity to acknowledge the violent side of Buddhism can be attributed to a century-long history of representation in the West of Buddhism as a non-violent and mystical religion. Since the early twentieth century until now Buddhist intellectuals and monastic figures such as the 14th Dalai Lama have attracted western interest in Buddhist traditions and cultures, but only particular aspects have been emphasized, such as karma, nirvana, meditation and pacifism. This partial portrayal was for a long time accepted uncritically by scholars, and it attracted many Westerners to convert to Buddhism; they have tended to see nothing negative in their new religion, and as such a myth of ‘non-violent Buddhism’has persisted in the West.

The contemporary outbreak of violence in Asian Buddhist monasteries is not exceptional in history. A few academic works, such as Buddhism and Violence (2006) and Buddhist Warfare (2009), have revealed the violent and military cultures of Asian Buddhist histories across China, India, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Tibet. Although Buddhism advocates bad karmic consequences for violence, there is a tradition in which Buddhists justify and legitimize some violence and killing as necessary. As Buddhism tends to reject the existence of any essential existence of things, the matter of killing is of intention rather than the act in itself. There were as such several instances in history when Buddhist monks committed acts of violence with the intention either to prevent worse killings or to protect their communities. Further, there are many moments when Buddhist monks worked closely with rulers, whose conquests were justified so long as they could be regarded as an unavoidable way to realize a higher good of purifying society in what was perceived to be an inherently violent world. But, is this justification of violence justifiable? Is there a danger inherent in this Buddhist relativization of the objective world?

In addition to Christian crusaders and Islamist militants, we now see that Buddhist rulers and monks have been no more peaceful than the followers of other religions. The recent attacks on Muslims in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma/Myanmar are notable because in each of them Buddhism is configured in exclusivist terms in relation to national identity. These countries are also experiencing profound political and economic changes and struggles. Sociologists and anthropologists working on religion have long associated such transformations with religious enthusiasm, resurgence and violence. In all these cases, violence is not a question of doctrine or scripture but religion as a vehicle for the expression of other tensions, hopes and anxieties around issues of ethnicity or identity and poverty or inequality. For example, when modern nationalism emerged in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Buddhist monks collaborated with state powers to suppress minority traditions in order to cement the new nations as ‘purely Buddhist’. Another Buddhist attack on Muslims in Meiktila in central Burma began from a gold shop. A Buddhist majority has tended to treat a Muslim minority as scapegoat for their frustrations in the current economic climate. This violence could be understood to some extent as entailing an expression of economic grievance.

In conclusion, Buddhism is just one of a number of causes and effects in current complex conflicts. The point is not to argue whether Buddhists are benevolent or violent people, but rather to accept that Buddhists are people, and therefore they share the same human spectrum of emotions, including depression, struggle, anger and violence. In this way we can acknowledge that however revered a tradition or culture may be, it is likely to have a darker side. Yet, if we want to explain that darker side, platitudes about human nature are not enough. Rather, we need to ask questions about specific configurations of Buddhist institutions with the state, minorities, and others, particularly at times of stress and change. In Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Tibet, and Sri Lanka the ways different lines of tension are configured will differ, given the various political and economic situations of these societies. One of the tasks for scholars is to analyze how Buddhists reconcile their doctrinal teachings of karma and non-violence with the sometimes active involvement of monks in acts of violence, when conflict involves real-world interests.