Adherents of a peaceful religion have been finding cause to fight
Buddhism is generally regarded, with good reason, as the most peaceful of world religions. Like other south Asian faiths, it stresses the principle of ahimsa, the “non-injury” of other living things. Yet its teachings also emphasise that violence harms the spiritual state of the perpetrator, as well as the victim. Malicious thoughts or deeds are regarded as obstacles on the path to nirvana, the self-transcendence which is the end-point of all spiritual endeavour. Early Buddhist history contains strong pacifist messages. The faith’s founder, Gautama Buddha, is said to have stopped a looming war over water supplies with a rival clan, the Koliyas. After converting to Buddhism, Emperor Ashoka, who ruled over south Asia in the third century BC, is believed to have felt remorse for the bloodshed he had caused in his earlier life.
More recent history is rather different. In Asia, Buddhist monks have been in the front line of bloody inter-communal conflicts, as propagandists or even as participants. In Sri Lanka zealous groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) have propagated the view that a small Muslim community is a deadly danger to the country’s integrity as a Buddhist nation. Hard-line monks took a militantly anti-Tamil stance during the country’s civil war which ended in 2009. Last month a Buddhist monastic in Sri Lanka was arrested and charged with attacking a centre for Muslim refugees. In recent years, militant monks have also stormed mosques, slaughter-houses and places of learning. In Thailand, Buddhist monks have been victims and protagonists in a conflict that has raged in three southern provinces where the population is mainly Muslim. It is not unknown for monastics there to brandish weapons under their robes. The killing of two monks in 2004 triggered an escalation of fighting.
But it is in Myanmar where Buddhist violence has become most familiar of late. A monk called Ashin Wirathu has led demands for a harsh response to a perceived Muslim threat. His organisation, Ma Ba Tha, has supposedly been banned, but it still presses the authorities to take the hardest of lines against the Rohingya Muslims, of whom over 600,000 have been expelled to Bangladesh. Ma Ba Tha disseminates the idea that Myanmar’s overwhelming Buddhist majority is threatened by the Muslim minority. The stance is criticised by some Asian Buddhists. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, has rebuked his coreligionists for persecuting the Rohingya, saying they should “remember Buddha”. He insisted that the faith’s founder would “definitely help those poor Muslims”.
Like every other important religion in history, Buddhism engenders powerful protective feelings among its followers, especially when sacred history and national history become intertwined, as happens in Sri Lanka. In the collective memory of Sri Lankan Buddhists, the emergence of their nation is seen as linked with the advent of their faith in the era of King Ashoka, if not earlier. And whenever people feel a threat to their identity and origins, they can easily be induced to lash out with disproportionate force, just as medieval Christians marched to war when told that their faith's holiest places in Jerusalem were being desecrated. Moreover, as with any vast corpus of sacred texts and annals, things can be found in the Buddhist tradition to justify violence, at least in self-defence. Medieval Japan, for example, had its Buddhist warrior monks. And even the Dalai Lama agrees that one can take limited action in self-defence. If a man is aiming a gun at you, he once said, you can shoot back, but to wound rather than kill.